Carbon Capture Storage: Lost in Translation

CC BY-SA 3.0 LeJean Hardin and Jamie Payne

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) entered the 21st century in a tour de force, boasting an innovative low-carbon technology that could cut emissions and allow for continued use of fossil fuels. It was the silver bullet the global community had been waiting for to maintain an energy secure future without really having to change, since CCS is an integrated system designed to harness carbon dioxide from traditional energy-intensive sources using coal and natural gas. The interest in CCS schemes however shifted over the last decade. Are they lost in translation?

China, the EU and the US were three major economic powerhouses that happily turned in part to CCS to address their overreliance of fossil fuels. It was a win-win scenario, in terms of domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Internally, CCS encouraged active pursuit of innovative technologies tailored to new environmental standards, while allowing a continuation to operate within their respective economies of scale. Externally, CCS exploration quelled criticism from the global community that these actors did not take climate change – and by extension their own actions – seriously.


Interest in CCS in China, the EU and the US (2005-2014)

Interest in CCS in China, the EU and the US
Source: Karimi and Khalilpour (2015), Information from Google Trends Software


Increased interest in and exploration of CCS among China, the EU and the US was not an isolated event. Rather, it reflected a history of fervent environmental activism from the international community and the insistence of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to create binding international agreements that addressed exponentially high greenhouse gas emissions. In response, China, the EU and the US readily adopted the unanimous recommendation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to, among other strategies, make CCS processes a priority in their emissions abatement response.

In short time, China, the EU and the US launched a series of funding initiatives, multilateral research and development programs, and policy guidance to incorporate CCS into their respective energy strategies, beginning in the mid-2000s. By 2008, interest in CCS was at an all-time high, ushering in an unprecedented phase of cooperation and interaction among these three global players (see Figure 1). With 65 large-scale integrated CCS projects underway in 2010, national and international targets to establish a fully integrated and commercialized CCS power plant using coal or natural gas seemed to be within reach. Fast-forward another six years to present day, and we have only seen three such plants achieve this operational feat – in Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Why this decline in CCS development?

What happened to CCS, given its tremendous amount of attention as a “key mitigation technology” in the face of rising CO2 emissions and a preferred strategy to safeguard energy independence? Why have we seen such a pronounced and sharp decline in CCS development, and what lessons can we learn from China, the EU and US to identify the more salient impediments to its widespread adoption? Ultimately, the most important explanations were borne from issues of economic viability, guidance for innovation potential, and perhaps most critically, public acceptance.

Economics played a key role in the demise of CCS, as substantial intellectual and financial assets were required to support R&D, patent securities, and policy language. As a technology that complimented fossil fuel enterprises, it suffered major economic setbacks in its infancy stages in its struggle to gain footing in an otherwise saturated and mature energy market. CCS was also at a disadvantage due to the lack of an international price signal for CO2.

Guidance for innovation potential, or government targets to officially incorporate CCS into the fossil fuel sector dropped exponentially after 2009, as many programs throughout these regions were delayed, cancelled, or redesigned, even though CCS had been hailed as a reliable medium- to long-term solution to curb emissions and service large energy demands.

The public acceptance of CCS

Studying the 65 pilots initially launched in China, Europe and US suggests that differences in public acceptance are an important aspect to explain variations in CCS outcomes. Although the general populace in all three regions tended to exhibit the same fears in terms of risk perception (e.g. leakage, public health concerns, long-term storage) and confessed low-levels of trust in governmental and industrial entities alike, they were often driven by vastly different norms and values, which in turn impacted the perceived benefits of CCS.

In the US, individual concerns were key, as property value loss, higher electricity costs, or foregone career opportunities played into CCS acceptance and thus transforming it into a political issue. With the EU, economic and environmental considerations coalesced to the community level, finding benefit in CCS only if tourism and future investment could be generated and if demonstration projects were established in a location least threatening to public health. Among Chinese, the risks and benefits of CCS were dependent upon community and state level impacts, often deferring to the technology if it could support the development of clean energy technology and help China to reach its national CO2 targets.

Public perception is a natural reflection of cultural history, norms, and values. However, public acceptance is highly impressionable, and dependent on a variety of factors, including levels of education, political affiliation, media portrayal, technological “packaging” from private and public sectors, and so on. So it seems likely that the way in which CCS was depicted among social spheres impacted its ability, over time, to be adopted and supported on a commercialized scale within China, the EU and the US.

Lessons learned and pathways forward

The enemy of innovation is often resistance to change. With public and private interests in play, only a fraction of alternatives successfully overcome the high degree of protection, as well as political and economic buy-in, of the status quo. CCS technology has faced this same obstacle from inception to attempted demonstration, often becoming a highly politicized issue (e.g. economic conservatism, environmentalism) with its approval ultimately falling on party lines. Unfortunately, just as with the hydraulic fracturing movement in the USA, or the Energiewende debate in Germany, the empirical and technical components of these alternatives are often lost for the sake of sensationalism hesitant of change.

In the future, for technologies like CCS to have fair entry into the energy market, accurate and unbiased information outlining its positive attributes and negative consequences must be available to provide each individual with the tools to generate his or her own opinion. A more transparent message as to the long-term benefits and consequences of these types of innovative systems must also be created to allow the public to assess its potential from an objective standpoint, before politics have a chance to intervene. Academic institutions, consortiums, and research centres play a key role here, and should work with local governments and elected officials to distribute this information to its residents to allow for an organic, well-informed movement to change our environmental response in the 21st century.

About the Author: Krista Tuthill is Strategy Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, DC.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

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