What Is Carbon Capture? Australia’s Predictable Response to the IPCC Climate Change Report

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The United Nations has released its long-awaited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the results are, to put it lightly, not great.

The report’s 3,900 pages contain phrases like “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere,” “many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia,” and “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades”.

These are the conclusions of hundreds of scientists and policy experts from around the world who have trawled through more than 14,000 scientific papers to produce the most authoritative work on the climate emergency to date.

The long and short of the report is that the climate emergency is real, humans are the cause of it, and time is very quickly running out to do something about the total collapse of the environment.

Death, doom, and destruction are everything we don’t want to read, hear, or even think about. It’s hard enough keeping on top of our own social lives, mental health and fitness — not to mention the fact that there’s a f’ing pandemic going on right now.

That’s why it shouldn’t be down to us — at least, not entirely — to fix this mess. Thankfully we have a competent, reliable, not-entirely-beholden-to-the-fossil-fuel-industry government to sort the problem out for us. Oh, wait.

Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, has already jumped on the defensive to roll out the same old waffle that the government usually spouts when climate change is brought up. The Guardian has comprehensively dismantled his statement, which claims government success for rooftop solar uptake by Aussies, a trend they have fought to discourage and belittle, and lower emissions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison — for his part — has used what should be a horrifying wake-up call to politicians as an opportunity to bash China and the developing world.

Australia has one of the highest per capita outputs of carbon emissions in the world. When you factor in all the coal we dig up and sell to China and the developing world, we are some of the biggest climate offenders on the planet.

Both politicians touted the use of “technology” as a means for solving the climate emergency. What they refer to is not renewable energy technology, already cheaper than fossil fuels, but a neat piece of tech that allows for both the having and eating of cake.

It’s called carbon capture and it’s wildly unproven as a technology. Still, that didn’t stop Treasurer Josh Frydenberg from committing $263.7 million in the most recent budget to the development of carbon capture hubs. Let’s see what we’re getting for our money, shall we?

What Is Carbon Capture?

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) or carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) are technologies that pull carbon dioxide emissions out of exhausts from factories, power plants, and even vehicles. They have also been promoted as methods for sucking carbon dioxide right out of the air.

Think of them like huge vacuum cleaners sucking dirty air in and pumping clean, carbon-free air out.

Of course, that carbon has to go somewhere. CCS is where extracted carbon is pumped underground while CCUS is where that carbon is turned into something else.

If you’re thinking this sounds a little bit like sweeping the problem under the rug, or that episode of The Simpsons where they squash all the rubbish into a mine which then explodes across the town, you would be right.

CCS storage has not yet been proven to be safe in the long run and there’s no telling if that carbon could later escape into the atmosphere and wreak havoc.

While it’s a nice idea, the filtering of heavy industry and fossil fuel burning is essentially a band-aid that allows for a longer-term reliance on fossil fuels. CCS plants and technologies also have to be powered somehow (guess what by?) and are beloved by those who want to delay a transition to clean energy.

Does Carbon Capture Work?

Carbon capture technologies have been around for a long time but only recently have received a lot of renewed interest as industries and governments realise we need to use every available option to reduce CO2 into the atmosphere.

Billions of dollars around the world — including in Australia — have been spent trying to get carbon capture to work. We really want this to work, not only because it will allow fossil fuel industries to continue generating millions of dollars in profit, but because we genuinely need all the help we can get when it comes to climate change.

Unfortunately, pretty much every time we’ve tried it, it either hasn’t worked or has cost far more than switching to renewable energy would.

Chevron CCS experiment at the Gorgon gas facility in Western Australia is one of the first our nation tried.

It was taxpayer-funded, to the tune of $60 million under the Low Emissions Technology Development Fund, and was supposed to begin operation just after the plant began processing gas in 2016.

In the terms of the deal signed with the Western Australian government, Chevron was supposed to capture 80% of the emissions from the underwater liquefied natural gas field over a five-year period and inject them into a reservoir 2km underground.

However, due to technical issues, leaks, and failures at the plant, the carbon capture system remained offline three years after the LNG plant got going. That plant then became the source of over half the increase in Australia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and Chevron may have to pay $100 million in fines for failing to meet the terms of the agreement. It was described as both a test case for future carbon capture technologies and a  “shocking failure”.

Australia is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the world. While the planet appears to have warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Australia has warmed by an average of 1.4. This is still at the lower end of where the IPCC believes we will end up if we don’t act drastically and we don’t know what the fallout of even this level of warming has for our country.

The idea that we are going to rely on CCS technology to save us when there are so many better, cheaper options available to us right now is a symptom of the current administration’s ideological commitment to profit over the planet.

Unless they are dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world, it’s unlikely that Australia will be able to deliver on targets anywhere near what IPCC scientists say we need in order to mitigate the ongoing effects of the climate emergency.

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