Monbiot on British carbon capture plans

Bricks and vines

Of all the comprehensive plans I have seen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from developed states, the one in George Monbiot’s Heat is the most ambitious. Whereas most people aim at stabilizing atmospheric GHG concentrations by 2100 or so, he thinks it must happen before 2030 is we are to avoid a mean temperature increase of more than 2°C and the very serious (potentially catastrophic) consequences such an increase would have. Part of Monbiot’s plan does involve continued use of fossil fuels, specifically the use of natural gas coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS) for electricity generation.

While Monbiot stands behind the belief that CCS can work and can contribute to climate change mitigation efforts, he is increasingly critical of how the British government is planning to use the technology:

In principle, carbon capture and storage (CCS) could reduce emissions from power stations by 80% to 90%. While the whole process has not yet been demonstrated, the individual steps are all deployed commercially today: it looks feasible. The government has launched a competition for companies to build the first demonstration plant, which should be burying CO2 by 2014.

Unfortunately, despite Hutton’s repeated assurances, this has nothing to do with Kingsnorth or the other new coal plants he wants to approve. If Kingsnorth goes ahead, it will be operating by 2012, two years before the CCS experiment has even begun. The government says that the demonstration project will take “at least 15 years” to assess. It will take many more years for the technology to be retro-fitted to existing power stations, by which time it’s all over. On this schedule, carbon capture and storage, if it is deployed at all, will come too late to prevent runaway climate change.

He also suggests that using CO2 from power plants for enhanced oil recovery risks actually increasing emissions. On the one hand, that is because it will allow extra oil to be extracted from declining fields, which will subsequently emit CO2 when burned. On the other, he touches upon concerns that CCS using depleted oil and gas fields will not be safe or permanent enough to effectively and indefinitely sequester carbon.

As with nuclear power, the issue of timelines is critical. Even good technology, when installed at a plodding rate, could propel us into very serious danger. Even if it does prove possible to start slow and late and still make the transition to a low-carbon economy, it seems highly likely that the total costs of adjustment will be much higher: a crash-building program akin to the one undertaken by Russia after Germany turned against it during WWII, rather than an economically optimal trajectory towards a low-carbon global economy.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Monbiot on British carbon capture plans”

  1. If CCS is both cheap and effective, it would let us cut out a big chunk of our emissions with very few changes to the economy or how we live.

    On the other hand, if it lacks one of those characterstics, trusting in it too much might prevent us from finding real solutions.

    In the long run, we need to get away from fossil fuels anyhow. Betting the farm on CCS isn’t very clever.

  2. Why carbon capture is an illusion


    Special to Globe and Mail Update

    March 18, 2008 at 5:29 PM EDT

    “But the most damning problem is that even if it works and even if you assume the industry’s enthusiastic targets for this technology can be realized, the technology will kick in too late. The international consensus is that to avoid the worst excesses of climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015, then start falling — down at least 50 per cent by 2050. Even industry’s own predictions don’t foresee carbon capture and storage becoming commercially viable before 2020 or 2030, and that will miss the critical threshold for turning things around.

    A joint Canadian government-industry initiative has produced a “technology road map” full of caveats that illustrate both the uncertainties and the limitations of CCS. By 2015, there “may” be a demonstration coal-fired power plant fitted with the technology, and carbon dioxide “might” be captured from tar-sands projects. And “if” Canada has constructed a system of pipelines across the western provinces to collect and transport the carbon dioxide from the tar sands hundreds of kilometres to an (as yet unknown) location, then “up to” 10 megatonnes of it might be flowing from Alberta for burial in 2015.

    That is less than 1.2 per cent of Canada’s expected carbon dioxide emissions for that year, just a drop in the bucket. It’s certainly not going to meet Mr. Baird’s aspiration of making our targets, let alone stop climate change.”

  3. Best Post Ever?
    By Eric de Place

    Given that coal and oil companies aren’t run by idiots, it’s clear that they’re not going to make arguments of the form “we shouldn’t act to ward off preventable environmental disaster because that would be bad for our shareholders and executives.” Instead, polluting energy firms are going to ride on to the scene as apostles of class warfare, condemning carbon pricing, congestion fees, energy efficiency mandates, and everything else under the sun as an undue burden on the poor.

    As readers know, I think that argument is often factual off-base. But at other times it has some real truth to it. If you make energy more expensive to use, this will inconvenience everyone to some extent, but it’ll be much less of a problem for more prosperous people. But what this analysis leaves out is that the price of inaction will also fall hardest on people of modest means. If changing weather patterns make food more expensive, then burden falls hardest on the poor. If natural disasters destroy people’s homes, then it’ll be hardest for the poor to rebuild. If water shortages lead to scarcity and black markets, it’s the rich who’ll be able to get what they need. This is the general virtue of having a lot of money — it can be exchanged for tangible items of value. Consequently, the downside impact of any widespread change will be hardest on those who have little of it. But that’s not a reason to never change our policies if the status quo is going to lead to even worse outcomes. You’re not ultimately doing the poor any good by condemning them to live in a world of climate catastrophe.

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