Why carbon capture isn’t a magic bullet solution to the climate crisis
Jan 29, 2024

Why carbon capture isn’t a magic bullet solution to the climate crisis

Catherine McKenna, former Canadian Minister for environment and climate change, says carbon capture has been used an excuse to avoid a faster transition to renewable energy

In rural North Dakota, an old, coal-fired power plant is being retrofitted to capture emissions before they enter the atmosphere and store them underground. $890 million from the 2022 bipartisan infrastructure law will go towards that and two similar projects in California and Texas.

Critics take issue with spending taxpayer money to kick the tires on “carbon capture and storage” technology.

Among those critics are Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former minister of environment and climate change. She’s now CEO of Climate and Nature Solutions, an advisory firm, and chairs the UN’s expert group on net-zero commitments.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with McKenna about how carbon capture has become a distraction.

Catherine McKenna: So when we start talking about carbon capture and storage – in particular, I’m talking about oil and gas, for fossil fuel companies – it’s not a solution that’s going to be at any kind of scale, or any cost but a particular, affordable cost. So one, it’s a distraction from what needs to happen now, which is reduce emissions by half globally, by 2030. But the other problem is that it’s a solution that ranks really low on real solutions. So fossil fuels, there’s an alternative to fossil fuels, it’s renewable energy. And in particular, we’ve seen wind and solar energy, the price have gone down drastically, and we have better battery storage, so we have other solutions. So my concern, and I’ve really seen this in Canada, but also globally, is that you have fossil fuel companies talking about carbon capture and storage, as if it’s like a big solution to the problem, when it really isn’t. So instead, we’re being distracted to talk about something that isn’t going to help in the short term to tackle the climate crisis, and then focuses on a solution that isn’t the main solution that we need, which in the case of fossil fuels is actually moving as quickly as we can to renewable energy.

Lily Jamali: So you’ve talked about how this is not a short-term solution. But I do want to dwell on this point for a moment, is the issue that this technology isn’t where it needs to be for it to work now, or that carbon capture won’t ever be a viable approach in your view?

McKenna: Well, the problem with carbon capture and storage is one of these things that the fossil fuel industry has been talking about for decades, as this magic bullet, the solution, “we don’t have to get out of fossil fuels, we’ll just say we’re just going to capture the emissions from fossil fuels,” and it just hasn’t happened. And if you look at what scientists have said, carbon capture is one of the least effective, most expensive climate change mitigation options on earth. The percentage of emissions that are being captured [at] the source is not very significant, especially for the costs we’re talking about, because you got to make decisions with money. It’s an option that may play a small roll, the International Energy Agency has said that, but the first thing we should be looking at is how to get large reduction emissions. And fossil fuel companies don’t like talking about this, but it’s actually moving off of fossil fuels. We are in a largely fossil fuel caused climate crisis. But I know and I’ve seen this in Canada, every conversation with fossil fuel companies gets to carbon capture storage, the need for more subsidies, so the government has to spend more taxpayer money on [an] option that, as I said, is the least effective, most expensive of the climate change mitigation options available.

Jamali: And as somebody who spent considerable time in government in Canada, as a member of parliament there, help me understand this. If carbon capture is so problematic, as you lay out, then what is it that keeps driving governments, including Canada, including the U.S. under the Biden administration, including the U.K., they’re all funding or providing financial incentives for these projects? Why?

McKenna: Well, I would say there’s certainly a lot of lobbying by oil and gas companies, both for subsidies and against policies that would foster cleaner solutions by these companies is hugely problematic. And look, I’m a reasonable person, like, all solutions on deck. But if the oil and gas companies really thought carbon capture was the big solution, the magic bullet, then they would be investing at scale. They’re not even doing that. So take the example of Canada. I’m not in politics anymore, but I’m a taxpayer. I’m wondering why you have fossil fuel companies making historic profits, profits they’ve never made before, largely off of an illegal war caused by Russia [and] they’re not investing it at scale in carbon capture and storage? They’re giving it to share buybacks and then demanding the taxpayers pay for carbon capture and storage to subsidise that while Canadians are paying even more for heating oil and gas. If the fossil fuel companies are so convinced that CCS is the solution then they should go fill their boots and invest in it at scale and not ask for subsidies while they’re making record profits that they’re returning to their shareholders.

Jamali: I’m curious as you have moved from a lawmaker in Canada to what is essentially the UN’s expert now on what’s known as greenwashing. What has struck you as you have watched, you know, what you essentially would characterize as the “distraction” tactics by the fossil fuel industry on carbon capture?

McKenna: Well, I mean, I’m just someone, once again. I was asked by the UN Secretary General to have, bring credibility to net-zero claims. So when you have companies including fossil fuel companies who say, we’re net-zero, we’re committed to net-zero, well, is that actually what’s happening? The reality is there’s a test. Are your emissions going down now? Is your money going from fossil fuels to clean [energy] at scale? On both those tests, fossil fuel companies fail. And also, the International Energy Agency has been very clear that you cannot be investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure and say that you’re net-zero.

Jamali: We often talk about carbon capture and storage in the context of the fossil fuel sector. That’s what we’ve been doing for most of this conversation. But there are other sectors that are really hard to decarbonize. How is the conversation different there? Or how should it be different?

McKenna: Well look, compare fossil fuels to other sectors that are hard to decarbonize. So if you take the production of aluminum, steel, cement, all products that we need, we don’t have great alternatives. And I will say I’m seeing a lot of advances, a lot of technological solutions to help decarbonize those sectors but there’s a long way to go and we do need these products. Carbon capture and storage has probably more of a role to play in those sectors where you don’t have good alternatives.

Jamali: Not saying we shouldn’t go the renewables path by any means, but what do you say to the argument that it’s worth at least investing and trying to see if we can make this technology viable?

McKenna: Go fill your boots, fossil fuel companies. You want to invest? Then do it and stop asking for subsidies from taxpayers. You know, it’s people that are paying the price with the cost of their heating fuels, but also paying the price in terms of the impacts of climate change, which has huge economic costs, as well as costs in people’s lives. And we still seem to be very far from a very basic economic principle, which is the polluters pay. In this case, polluters aren’t even paying for the solution that they say would help tackle the problem. But they’re not paying for the damage that is caused by the climate crisis that is a fossil. It’s largely driven by fossil fuel companies. And they have known this for decades. They’ve hidden the problem, for a long time they denied the science, even though they had the science. But now they seem to move to a more sophisticated form of climate denial, which is actually saying, well, let’s focus on the solution that is not effective. It’s not scalable. It’s beyond the 2030 timeline that we should be focused on. And I think that is a massive problem.

More on this

The Department of Energy says three carbon capture projects getting funded could curb carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those of 1.7 million gas-powered cars each year.

In its announcement last month, the DOE said it has supported research on carbon capture and storage tech for more than two decades.

But there is robust debate among authorities in the energy space on the merits of carbon capture and storage.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency has said the fossil fuel industry needs to let go of what it calls the “illusion” that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are a viable solution to climate change.

In response, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said there was “… no solution set out there today that is at the scale to solve the problem.”

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