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:: Caching the Carbon

When politicians fail, should technicians take over? Can one capture carbon dioxide and store it underground? Should we do it? A new paperback contains all possible arguments regarding this main question of climate change and climate policy – and helps finding the right answer. By Udo E. Simonis

In recent years, with the failures of international climate policies, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has come to the fore as a possible technical option to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. Including the two editors, the 15 authors of this book examine its introduction into the political arena, the interpretations of its significance as an emerging technology, the policy challenges facing industry, government and international institutions with respect to its development, deployment and regulation, and the role it is assigned in overall mitigation strategies and future energy trajectories.

 

The book includes an extensive conceptual chapter, case studies on CCS in the United States, Australia, Canada, Norway, Germany, UK, Netherlands, the European Union, a comparative chapter, and a concluding chapter on the politics and policy of CCS. All this makes excellent reading. No doubt, students and researchers from both the natural and the social sciences will find this book illuminating, as will officials in governments and international organisations.

 

Conceptually, CCS seems to be simple and straightforward. The basic idea is to avoid the harm caused by the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the combustion of fossil fuels and certain other industrial processes by trapping the emissions at source (capture), transporting them to suitable locations, and locking them away for distant futures (storage). In practice, however, things are not so easy, but extremely complex. CCS requires large-scale integration of technologies for capture, transport and storage that not only entail significant, but unknown, costs, but also high risks for the environment and for human beings.

 

A host of liability and regulatory issues would have to be addressed before any large-scale deployment could take place. But due to the occurring climate change and the persisting weakness of national and international climate policy, questions regarding CCS in abatement strategies are becoming more topical – and getting heavily controversial. While industry is generally in favour and governments are varied in their enthusiasm but generally support CCS, it is civil society that is turning against the technology, pointing to its costs and risks, or even criticising it as no solution at all. The book therefore comes at the right time.

 

It begins with an overview of the various technical approaches to capture CO2 (including post-combustion, pre-combustion, and oxyfuel technology), the transport options (like pipelines and tankers), and the storage options involved (including geologic sequestration, ocean storage, mineral carbonation). The potential environmental impacts are conceptualised on three levels: (1) the local health issues related to accidental release of captured CO2, (2) the global climate risks from large-scale releases of CO2, and (3) other impacts related to the deployment of the technology.

 

The main focus of the book is on the construction of the arguments about CCS in the public sphere, the actors and coalitions of actors who have articulated distinctive perspectives on CCS, and the tactics and strategies governments have adopted to integrate it into climate and energy policies. CCS is said to be enmeshed in a web of political and policy arguments that have irreducible normative connotations. And so the authors analyse the issues decision-makers are confronted with when encouraging the uptake of the technology, managing uncertainties and regulating attendant risks. In the various case studies, this is done quite differently, and so the national stories told are also different.

 

For instance, the US political context is defined as: “technology leader, policy laggard”. In the United States, CCS became a key element of a technologically focused approach as an alternative to government regulation, emissions pricing, and mandatory emission reductions. By contrast, the Australian case is called: “from political posturing to policy potential”. For Norway, the technology is taken as “political glue”. The UK is said to be squaring coal use with climate change; while the European Union is described as: “magic bullet or pure magic” – question mark.

 

So, CCS plays many different roles. While it technologically relates to global climate change, its political importance is closely linked to specific contextual factors. No wonder then that the main concern for environmentalists is that CCS will divert financial resources and political attention from what is perceived to be the real and only solution to climate change: energy saving, higher energy efficiency, new and additional renewables!

 

The editors call their concluding chapter: “the uncertain road ahead”.

CCS can be seen as a new focus for general political argument, where exploring the story lines becomes interesting per se. The editors prefer to leave it to the reader to judge the real prospects for CCS, but point to three possible alternatives for the long-term future: (1) CCS as a core technology in a still fossil-based global energy system; (2) CCS as a nationally or regionally significant technology in a mixed energy world; or (3) CCS as a niche technology in a world turning more and more towards non-carbon energy systems.

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