One odd thing about following climate change as a scientific, political, and ethical issue is the disparity between different sorts of relevant timelines. There is a rate at which scientific reports come out, a rate at which public opinion about climate change shifts, and a rate at which firms feel the need to change their public images. There are also much slower shifts – slower primarily because they are costly and require massive physical changes to energy systems.
Back in 2008, in a presentation at Cambridge University, the UK Environment Secretary Ed Miliband expressed his view that carbon capture and storage (CCS) was just around the corner. He says that all of the necessary technologies have been tried successfully, and the next step is a demonstration facility. He goes on to quote the European Commission’s hope of: “every new power station in Europe being carbon capture and storage ready by 2010 and using carbon capture and storage by 2020.”
We’re still waiting for that demonstration plant. This is not to say that CCS has no contribution to make to fighting climate change. Indeed, paired with power plants burning biomass, it could remove CO2 from the air in a promising way. Rather, there has been a persistent notion that CCS is just around the corner. We need a demo plant, then we can somehow magically retrofit the world’s coal stations and solve our climate problems without shutting them down or abandoning coal as a source of energy.
I can see why that is appealing, even for those not beholden to coal-dependent utilities or coal mining interests. China has lots of coal, and it is scary to think what will happen if they burn it all. That fear can give people a powerful reason to hope that CCS will mop up the whole problem without much fuss.
In the near term, CCS seems to have more potential to delay action – keeping us clinging to the belief that some wonderful technology will save the day. Meanwhile, the window in which we can take action to avoid catastrophic climate change is shrinking, and the total costs of the transition are rising as the time we have left in which to complete it diminishes.