Will Copenhagen Resuscitate Carbon Capture and Storage?

In a final end-game bid, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Australia are frantically trying to shoe-horn support for the experimental Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology into a final agreement from the COP15 conference in Copenhagen. By the end of the first week of negotiations, promoters of the technology failed to win support from one of the major committees of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

But just two days later, draft text prepared by the chair of one of the two 'tracks' of UNFCCC negotiations threw a lifeline to the coal and power generation industries by flagging that whether or not to include CCS in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as one of the most important issues requiring resolution. Including CCS projects in the CDM would provide a massive financial incentive for the development of trial CCS projects, most of which would be attached to massive new coal-fired power stations in developing countries. And this is just what groups such as the World Coal Institute and the International Emissions Trading Association have been lobbying for.

Hyping CCS

In their bid to sell CCS as warranting inclusion in the CDM, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Australia have resorted to hyping the state of the technology and its applicability throughout the world. Both countries were the most prominent promoters of CCS in the course of the meetings of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) during the first week of the COP15 conference.

Saudi Arabia rather optimistically claimed that CCS is "the most promising technology" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But at least he <> made it clear that Saudi Arabia had its own self-interest at heart. "For my country we have zero projects, zero projects in our country for the CDM because we are heavily dependent on the exporting of the oil. So the only opportunities we have for CDM projects in our countries ... is the CCS under the CDM." He also claimed that it is a technology of interest to many other developing countries. Other oil-producing countries which spoke in support of CCS at the meetings were Kuwait and Qatar.

Australia, the world's largest global coal-exporting country, was careful to avoid any discussion of its own self-interest, preferring to hype the technology and its global potential. Citing a draft report presented to the Executive Board of the CDM, the Australian representative claimed that it "clearly shows that CCS is a mature technology that will be progressively deployed across developed and developing countries over the coming decade". He also claimed that "business and host governments need to receive a clear early signal before they commit to such large scale early investments. We should send that signal at Copenhagen."

What he didn't mention was that the final version of the report listed a host of unresolved financial, legal and technical problems with CCS. More damning still was a major report commissioned by the Australian-government founded Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) which concluded that the technology is a long, long way from being a "mature" technology for use in the power generation sector at a commercial scale, and its only chance of evolving rapidly is if tens of billions of dollars of public funds are poured into trial projects. It is a moot point whether CCS will play any meaningful role by 2030 let alone 2020.

Why the Rush?

So why the urgency? Why should the harried government negotiators in Copenhagen spend more of their scarce time discussing a technology that doesn't currently exist at an operational scale in the power generation sector and won't for a decade or more?

Saudi Arabia and the other oil producers are at least up-front about wanting to reap financial windfall for cutting pollution from their oil operations. Australia, however, is being more disingenuous. The prospects for maintaining, or even expanding, the sales of thermal coal hinge on the construction of new coal-fired power stations. What the CCS enthusiasts know is that if they can sell the idea that a low or "zero" emissions coal burning power station is just around the corner, then gullible governments may keep on approving new coal fired power stations.

The CCS enthusiasts also know that retrofitting CCS to an existing plant will be prohibitively expensive, so new plants built now will either emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide for their economic life or be rendered redundant in a carbon constrained world.

If CCS were to ever prove to be technically and economically viable, coal producers would be laughing all the way to the bank. CCS projects are very energy-intensive, consuming a significant proportion of the electricity generated from the associated power station. To sell the same amount of power into the grid, a CCS-fitted coal-fired power station would need to be even larger and consume considerably more coal. (They would also consume a lot more water.)

Perhaps the most perceptive comment on CCS at COP15 came from Paraguay's representative, who simply stated that "what this technology implies is that emissions can continue to take place at a rate which will be infinite ... I think this type of thinking and approach, quite simply, will stand in the way of the real plans aiming at ... the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels." And reductions in the consumption of fossil fuels is what terrifies oil producing nations and coal exporters alike.

Bob Burton is the Managing Editor of SourceWatch. His Twitter feed is BobBurtonoz.

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Excellent piece. What a sham. Keep the analysis coming! It is vital to understand who will get the cash out of the "agreements" on technology - I have also blogged about this etcblog.org.