The CCS Smokescreen and How to Avoid Supporting It

Here’s a good greenwash starter for 10.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take a fossil fuel and burn it without releasing any of that nasty CO2 into the atmosphere? Even better, what if that fossil fuel was one we still have a lot of in the UK? And better still, what if we could encourage a few environmental NGOs to support the idea, even when many scientists and some senior members of big energy companies don’t think it will be commercially ready on time?

Welcome to the dreamworld of carbon capture and storage (or CCS for short). Only it’s not a dream, it’s very real, and the Scottish Government is pinning our energy future on it.

Back in May 2009 the Scottish Government proudly announced that CCS technology had been fitted to the coal plant at Longannet, Scotland’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. With all the fanfare and opprobrium that surrounded this announcement you would have been forgiven for thinking that owners Scottish Power had somehow snuffed out the problem with the flick of a switch, and with several NGOs willing to provide a few positive soundbites the voices of the sceptics were effectively silenced. But we should be grateful. In the USA we’d also have been up against a lobbying industry that already counts its turnover in millions of dollars.

What we were saying is this. The technology was only fitted to one of Longannet’s four boilers; CCS is not 100% efficient; and investment in CCS, much of which comes from public funds, would be better invested in helping us break our addiction to centralised fossil-fuel plants.

First of all, let’s consider those efficiency figures. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), fitting a coal plant with CCS will reduce its CO2 emissions by around 87%. CCS does generate around a 31% increase in emissions of nitrous oxides, but the total production of these is miniscule in comparison, although this does impact on local pollution levels.

So far so good – we get the energy companies to agree that all new coal plants will be ‘CCS ready’ and every time the technology is installed we make a big reduction to CO2 emissions. Just don’t build any new plants close to urban areas.

But there are a few catches. Longannet is only a trial and there’s a big jump to be made between technological viability and market viability. Those within the energy industry who have expressed their doubts over CCS have raised this as the key problem. In order for CCS to make a real contribution to emissions reductions targets it will have to be rolled out on a large scale, and soon.

Taking CCS from a demonstration technology to one that is installed on every coal plant in the UK will require vast amounts of money. It will also be necessary to decommission any plants that are unsuitable, and build new capacity to replace these.

The consensus is that it could all be achieved by 2030, the same year by which James Hansen has claimed that all coal power stations will need to be shut down if we are to avert the worst effects of climate change. This is important, as a key claim made by the pro-CCS camp is that it is a ‘transition technology’, but the lifespan of a coal plant means that even if no more are built after 2030 some will still be operating after 2050 – the date by which we will need to have achieved that transition if we are to meet our emissions targets.

Can we get an agreement for no new coal plants after 2030? Will governments and companies look at all they will have invested, all the coal that will still be available, the profits to be made from it, and write the whole thing off after just 30 years? I’ll leave that one to you.

All that coal lying round is certainly very tempting. There’s a lot that we can get to easily. And if it is difficult to get to we can turn it into gas and burn it underground, as the people of Kircaldy are now finding out. You see CCS and its sister technology coal gasification are spin-offs from research into how to extract oil from hard to reach reserves.

As for health and safety, modern mines are a lot safer, but what about those in places such as China? One of the main arguments being put forward by some ‘environmental’ NGOs, is that we need to invest in CCS to help China reduce its emissions. Indeed when I questioned a senior member of one of them about this apparent discrepancy in policy he claimed that it is “Scotland’s moral duty” to do so. So, despite China’s slightly unnerving capacity to rapidly produce vast amounts of pretty much anything it wants to, we’re going to write it off as only being able to achieve a second-rate response to climate change? And are we also going to conveniently turn a blind eye to the environmental impacts of its mines and the lives that are being lost in them?

It’s also difficult to imagine how much of an impact technological aid from this small country will have on the Chinese colossus, and this brings into question the cost of doing so. Of course all that investment will produce useful outputs such as patent rights, and there’s a lot of money to be made from licensing them. Some of that money will come back to the public purse and some might even stay in China, so little Scotland can play like the big boys by piously giving aid and then getting it all back. But we know where most of it will end up, so it’s nice to know this moral duty also extends to helping big corporations make money.

So what are the alternatives? The need to invest our money and efforts in reducing the electricity we use and improving the efficiency with which we use it should be taken as read. How we source and generate it is the real question.

Historically, investment in renewables has been tiny compared to investment in fossil fuels and nuclear. That imbalance has to be rectified and turned in favour of renewables of all forms. That alone would be a massive achievement for any government, but it should be a very attractive one. To ensure energy security we must prioritise investment in joining the European ‘Supergrid’ as part of the transition to 2050. In addition, that technological ‘aid’ may be better targeted at the African nations that would host the proposed new solar farms – taking a proven and safe technology to countries in real need of assistance, and building farms that will also support the Supergrid.

Some will argue that a coal-free transition would require new nuclear build, but in Scotland the slightest suggestion of this invites immediate condemnation. Those who claim to oppose nuclear power on environmental grounds need to be clear that these arguments stand up separately from the non-proliferation ones.

Finally, at home, we need to maximise the return on that investment by developing large scale renewables where they will generate the most electricity at minimal environmental impact, and by ramping up the installation of micro generation technologies across our villages, towns and cities.

So what can you do? As always, ask questions. How much does your energy supplier invest in coal and how much in renewables? Are any energy-related developments planned for your area? Where do your political representatives stand on energy? And if you’re a member of a political party or an NGO, what are their policies on coal and renewables?

If you don’t like the answers, take some simple actions. Switching your energy supplier has never been easier. At present, Good Energy and Ecotricity top the green list. If you can’t switch fully to either of these then opt for a green tariff, but read the small print – where and how will your payments be invested?

And of course you can also invest in microgeneration for your home. Feed in tariffs are making this an increasingly attractive option, although there are plenty of companies cashing in on this, so make sure that the returns quoted are unbiased.

Then why not put your mouth where your money is and support those opposing all new coal plants and calling for a renewable future? Get involved by writing to your political representatives, using your vote, and joining the demonstrations. And if you are a member of a party or NGO which supports CCS then lobby them, or perhaps consider if that membership fee could be better invested elsewhere.

About Keith Baker

, I grew up in South Wales, where I started trying to make a bit of a difference to the environment as a conservation volunteer with my school at the tender age of 11. Then since finishing my first degree (in environmental science) at Sussex University in Brighton I’ve hopped about the universities of the UK and the world a bit, finishing off with a Ph.D in Domestic Energy Consumption from De Montfort in Leicester. Hardly the best university in the world but a fantastically multi-cultural place to live, and home to a community of campaigners who carry on the city’s political tradition of causing trouble. Indeed although the students of its second university may not be known for living up to it, the choice of name for the university is rather apt for the community it serves. I’ve been living in Edinburgh for about two and a half years now, where I’ve been working as a researcher and campaigning in my spare time, and to be honest I’m a little disappointed. Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and sits in an equally beautiful landscape, so you would think that people at all levels of society would be being inspired to work hard to preserve the environment, globally as well as locally. Whilst some of my articles will hopefully dispel the myths around ‘eco-friendly’ products, I’ll also be discussing bigger problems that we all contribute to, knowingly or otherwise. These will be sprinkled with greenwash pet-hates such as carbon capture and storage, the media’s coverage of climate change and other scientific matters, and the lack of real progress to improve the energy efficiency of housing – I’m sat writing this in the spare room of a modern flat with a thick top and jumper on and it’s still freezing! . I’ve spent much of my time working with other campaigners who, shall we say, wear green sleeves and red shirts. It tends to nurture the rebellious streak, but that’s a big part of what makes me me. Sometimes it takes asking the most awkward questions to ferret out the truth. I’m hoping that, with your help and vigilance, we might even win the odd victory from this little corner of the internet.
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