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1 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:20pm

Carbon capture and storage: it’s not your usual standup comedy material

Carbon capture and storage technologies can help the fight against climate change, says research associate at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and standup comedian, Matt Winning.  

By Matt Winning

As a standup comedian and environmental economist my two jobs mostly revolve around trying to create a good atmosphere. And here I’m going to talk about the elephant not yet in the room – carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The transition towards a low-carbon global energy system, which is required to stop dangerous climate change, is now well underway. In a year where new offshore wind is considerably cheaper than new nuclear energy in the United Kingdom and with solar costs dropping like it’s hot – since 2010 new solar PV costs have dropped 70 per cent and Mexican solar just reached 1.77 cents/kWh in November – it feels like things are finally kicking into gear.

However, if we go all Mystic Meg and look further into the future then things appear to get as tough as finding someone who is doing Tough Mudder not talking about doing Tough Mudder. Tough! So what do we do once, not only the low-hanging fruit has gone, but we’ve also climbed our only ladder and picked all the fruit we know exists? Well, we need to rely on new reverse-ladders that suck the fruit out of the trees. Or a giant peach. Okay, ignore the fruit metaphor!

The problem is that we have a growing global population and resultant energy demand which needs to be met while simultaneously reducing our net emissions to zero (just like Captain Planet always told us) in the second half of the century. And pretty much all studies suggest that to achieve this we need to deploy CCS technologies across many sectors.

CCS refers to a range of technologies that capture the CO2 from a variety of processes, for example coal power generation, and then store the resulting carbon in the ground. All of the good stuff without the side-effects. Like whisky without the hangover. Imagine if you could eat all the donuts you wanted but your digestive system removed all the fat and stored it in your toenails. You could literally have your cake and eat it.

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In the context of achieving the Paris Agreement goals, almost all Integrated Assessment Models used in the IPCC reports deploy CCS to varying degrees. In particular, these computer models rely on the availability of coal, gas or oil with CCS in order to cut emissions as well as negative emissions technologies such as Bio-energy with CCS (BECCS) or even direct air capture – another slightly more expensive option where we actually suck CO2 out of the atmosphere rather than removing the emissions at source. Imagine a giant Dyson vacuum cleaner but probably less expensive.

The benefit of CCS is that it allows current, proven technologies to be continued in tandem with newer technologies as part of a portfolio of supply-side mitigation options, and is importantly able to balance issues surrounding less developed technologies, such as the intermittency of renewables.

The main problem with CCS, and it’s a rather big one, is it doesn’t really exist yet. Certainly not at scale. Yeah, that’s a bit of an issue. Basically we’re dependent upon something that doesn’t yet exist to solve climate change. I’m not going to sugar-coat that fact for you because it would require more deforestation to grow the sugar cane and simply make things worse. And there are other issues including security of storage, scaling up, economic viability and public acceptance.

What has been most surprising to me is the lack of investment by fossil fuel companies into CCS. If you were a terminally ill rich person and found out about a magical technology which might save, or at least prolong, your life you’d probably invest in it. Instead many coal, oil and gas companies have continued spending revenue on fidget spinners and searching for new reserves which may well become stranded in the future, rather than focus on developing a technology which would allow them to burn their current reserves even in light of movements to stop unabated coal, such as the UK’s commitment to phase it out in electricity by 2025. Coal, gas and oil is also the name of a very good Earth, Wind and Fire tribute act.

In particular, CCS appears critical to reduce emissions in hard-to-decarbonise industries such as cement, iron and steel, and paper, where there is less ability to substitute towards alternatives.

Also, CCS cannot simply be considered the same as renewables as it doesn’t produce energy but instead simply removes the negative externality of producing energy. Therefore there is an extremely important role for government here to help development as without strong incentives such as a carbon price then the necessary investment will not occur. In fact there are a number of extra actors (not Benedict Cumberbatch) and more complex supply-chain considerations in the development of CCS plants and with this more complicated regulatory framework can come extra associated costs and risks.

Therefore government can help mitigate these by providing whole-chain support. In the Clean Growth Strategy the UK Government has committed £100m for CCS demonstration. This is ten times less than we were going to invest a few years ago before George Osborne cancelled the initial CCS competition. Basically nothing. And we’re still ahead of the curve.

It is my opinion that the risks of not having CCS outweigh the risks of developing the technology, in light of achieving a “well-below 2o°C” world and especially for a “towards 1.5o°C”future. A “best case” without CCS means the costs to the energy system are significantly larger than would otherwise be and a “worst case” without CCS simply makes the Paris targets infeasible.

Therefore, steps (not the band) need to be taken now so that the technology properly exists in 20 or 30 years’ time as the other options are either too dangerous, too costly or require fundamental change in our economies, for example large-scale demand reduction. None of which we can rule out either. It seems a fairly simple solution, then – support and develop CCS. But given the distinct lack of coordinated action thus far, I think we should also be considering some of these plan Bs (not the musician).

Dr Matt Winning is a London-based Scottish comedian and environmental economist. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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