Carbon capture and storage may never be financially viable: leading economist

Leading economist Professor Gordon Hughes, professor of economics at the University of Edinburgh and a former adviser to the World Bank, has warned that claims of carbon capture and storage’s (CCS) potential are ignoring key considerations to its viability and that it will likely be too expensive to use.

The technology, which captures carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions to prevent it entering the atmosphere, has been touted not only as an environmental victory, but a cost-saver for industries not prepared to switch to renewables.

The essence of carbon capture is in the scrubbing of the carbon dioxide from the flue gas at fossil fuel plants, particularly coal, via absorption (currently the dominant method), adsorption or membrane gas separation. Once the carbon dioxide has been captured, it can be transported and stored where it cannot enter the atmosphere.

While the initial costs of carbon capture are high and raise the energy needs of plants, it has been believed that investment in the technology will eventually lead those plants making use of it to save money.

In a new report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, however, Professor Hughes says that, in practice, the claims of quickly falling costs are unlikely and even if true, are probably going to be undermined by the total investment.

“We have spent countless millions trying to get carbon capture to work for coal-fired power stations,” said Hughes. “But in the future coal will mostly be used in the developing world, where CCS is going to be too expensive. Everyone else is moving to gas, for which CSS isn’t yet an option.”

The report even goes so far as to say that making carbon capture technology work for natural gas, which already produces at least 5% less CO2 than is found in coal flue gas, “would make renewables and nuclear look cheap”. In no small part, this is due to a lack of connected policy when it comes to the technology and its place alongside other energy ventures. With the majority of attention being on expanding renewables, there’s simply not the focus to make CCS work.

“Successive governments haven’t thought their policies through,” Hughes elaborated. “The focus on renewables is making CCS – already a marginal technology – even less viable. A coherent strategy could reduce carbon emissions at a fraction of the current cost by switching to gas with the option to install CCS if/when it makes economic sense.”

The report highlights the fact that while the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have noted carbon capture technologies as crucial to meeting the emission pledges of the Paris Agreement, the lack of investment in the technology in favour of renewables has drastically slowed development. While the claims as to CCS’ potential are not completely outlandish, they appear to be reliant on an investment that simply does not exist.

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