Why carbon capture and storage technologies represent a new form of greenwashing

Polluters’ reliance on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, in-place of holistic action and expansion of renewables, is a greenwashed recipe for disaster, argues Aidan McClean, CEO and co-founder of online electric vehicle hire firm UFODRIVE.

Modern civilisation is founded on technology. It has made our lives immeasurably better, and we seem to be on the constant verge of something greater than ever before. However, when it comes to climate action, too many governments, companies and organisations are using technological potential and the alure of the next big breakthrough to defer meaningful, radical, climate action.

Nothing exemplifies this better than carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. It is an expensive, unscalable, and inefficient solution that often creates more pollution than it saves due to how energy intensive it is. This is, of course, worsened by how it is used to greenwash the environmental impact of fossil-fuel energy production, with energy companies and petrostates using its potential success at removing carbon as an excuse to just produce more.

There is some positive news, though. Clean, renewable energy production is commonplace throughout much of the world, and has been steadily, but consistently, rising. Clean energy production met up to 7% of global demand in the first six months of 2021, according to the World Economic Forum, and accounts for more than half of all jobs in the energy sector.

Furthermore, investment into renewable sources now accounts for almost three-quarters of the growth in total energy investment and has been growing at an average annual rate of 12% since 2020.

To keep global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, which is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) brand a “liveable future”, greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025. And we are on course to meet this target, but only by the skin of our teeth, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Energy companies must ramp up renewable investments

A hospitable planet and functioning ecosystems, however, do not seem to be priorities for many energy companies. The four largest oil and gas companies in Europe (BP, Shell, TotalEnergies and Equinor) are allegedly investing just 5% of their profits in renewables, according to a recent investigation by Channel 4 News.

The results across the Atlantic are even grimmer. The two major American energy companies – Chevron and ExxonMobil – trail their European counterparts significantly, with scientists questioning the clean energy claims of all of the big four energy providers globally, according to a study from February 2022 in the journal PLOS One.

Understanding how far short both US and European energy producers fall from sound climate action is easier said than done due to a general lack of transparency around existing investments in renewables.

However, estimates are below 1% of profit, and in fact, “only in 2018 did ExxonMobil recognise, indirectly and weakly, the link between fossil fuels and climate change in its annual report”.

Misplaced priorities and new forms of greenwashing

Instead, energy companies and petrostates have other (misplaced) priorities. Carbon capture technologies are colossally expensive, taxpayer-subsidised failures – which in practice just give energy producers the excuse to pollute further. Their lack of viability, and the enthusiasm for them amongst those that profit the most from fossil fuels (such as Saudi Arabia), reveals the truth: it is just a new form of greenwashing.

CCS technologies actually increase the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere due to how energy intensive the process is. In fact, the US emits roughly five billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, and removing one billion tons of that through direct air capture would require almost the entire electricity output of the entire country, according to some of the recent studies in the Biophysical Economics and Sustainability journal.

Worryingly, state subsidies, particularly in the west, are often the driving force behind carbon capture. For example, the Quest CCS facility, a joint venture between Shell, Chevron, and Marathon Oil, cost $1 billion overall, with $654 million coming from Canadian government subsidies. The companies involved in this project claim that it has captured five million tonnes of CO2 in less than five years. Yet some reports claim that it also emitted a further 7.5 million tonnes during the same time period and that only 48% of the plant’s emissions were captured, far short of the 90% claimed, according to NGO Global Witness.

To make matters worse, CCS isn’t just being used as a distraction, vanity project, or projected virtue, but rather a way to mask true action, or lack thereof. CCS “makes up a large part of low carbon investment for Chevron and Shell”, according to the PLOS One study, and we still aren’t clear whether this depicts R&D, project development or actual energy production.

Business as usual

Despite what’s at stake, business as usual prevails. Channel 4 alleged that BP invested £300m into renewables in the first half of 2022, but £3.8bn in new oil and gas projects, which is more than 10 times its low carbon investments. Similarly, Shell invested the equivalent of 6.3% of its £17.1bn profits into low carbon energy, and nearly three times that amount in more oil and gas.

The most frustrating aspect of this, perhaps, is the fact that renewables work. They are profitable, sustainable, and have consistently grown to meet demand; their value has been even more graphically illustrated as Russia’s war in Ukraine made gas expensive and unreliable.

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