Carbon capture is a distraction we cannot afford.

I’m in favor of carbon capture as a general concept. I’ve written before about using plants for that purpose, and I continue to think that we should be doing that.


Without eliminating fossil fuel use, carbon capture is a distraction we cannot afford.

A new report from Imperial College London has outlined the degree to which carbon capture worked between 1996 and 2020, as well as the degree to which it has been over-estimated:

The researchers compared estimations of stored carbon with official reports, and found that the reports lead to overestimates of actual carbon stored by 19-30 per cent.

They calculated 197 million tonnes of carbon were captured and stored between 1996 and 2020, which represents a significant achievement in climate change mitigation. However, the researchers say the lack of consistent reporting frameworks mean current reported rates of carbon capture are overestimated, giving an inaccurate picture of the technology’s contribution to fighting climate change. This, the researchers say, disempowers us in meeting climate mitigation strategies like the Paris Agreement and risks hiding issues that could otherwise be easily solved, such as inefficiencies in facility technology and transport.

Lead author Yuting Zhang, PhD candidate at the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, said: “Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is rightly a cornerstone of climate change mitigation, but without a centralised reporting framework we approach climate change on the back foot when we need to be more proactively tackling the issue with robust and accurate reporting.

I’m sorry, but in light of this report, I have to disagree with the lead author. If this is an example of what carbon capture and storage has to offer, then we cannot rely on it at all. Once again – 197 million tonnes of carbon captured and stored over a period of 24 years. For comparison, we emitted 36.3 billion tonnes in 2021 alone. The decrease in emissions from the 2020 lockdowns was 2 billion tonnes, which is over ten times what was captured during that 24 year period.

Taking this seriously as “a cornerstone of climate change mitigation” feels like declaring a toddler with a bucket to be a cornerstone of our firefighting strategy. This is not the first time I’ve wondered whether industrial carbon capture is anything more than a greenwashing campaign, fueled by a willful detachment from reality. As always, I’m glad for this research. It’s good to have numbers on how carbon capture has been going (as badly as all the rest of our climate “action”), and how the propaganda surrounding it has over-sold its usefulness.

The study authors suggest centralizing the process of tracking and reporting on carbon capture and sequestration. That’s fine. It seems like a good idea. I also think it’s worth noting that it’s not like any of our other climate mitigation efforts have been going any better, so it’s possible that if we ever take the issue seriously (you know, before it kills us all), carbon capture will make a huge difference. Even so, if that happens, it won’t matter if we’re still generating so much carbon dioxide. Carbon neutrality is not enough. It shouldn’t need saying, but freezing CO2 levels where they’re at right now is still a catastrophe – it’s just a slower one.

Carbon capture and storage is rightly a cornerstone of climate mitigation, but without a rapid elimination of fossil fuel use, it will do little more than help our rulers deflect blame for the horrors they have wrought.

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  1. says

    “the horrors they have wrought”

    It might be worthwhile, if horrible to contemplate, to list out some educated guesses of what these horrors will look like. On one hand you’ve got the mainstream world going “well, this looks bad as fuck, but my neurotypical brains will not allow me to conceive of a world in which anything has fundamentally changed.” On the other, you’ve got panicky jackasses on reddit imagining cannibal apocalypse within five years and pondering whether they should mercy kill their children.

    So what is for sure going to happen? What is pretty likely to happen? What are some exotic knock-on possibilities? What’s the rough time frame for what this looks like?

    Reef coral is most assuredly going to go extinct in the wild within a few decades here, right? Even if all carbon production stopped this instant, the estimated time frame for that was well within the period where runaway warming will continue, last I heard. The web of life in the ocean is so complicated I wouldn’t expect anybody to even hazard a guess as to how bad that will be for the ocean and coastal biomes as a whole, but it’s a starting point for guessin’.

    Since we’re hitting the point where human life near the tropics will require AC to make it through a solar cycle, doesn’t that mean all large wild animals will be driven to extinction by heat alone within this century? Seems pretty fucking likely to me. I know if I had to live outdoors my ass would be grass. Anyway, WWF panda T-shirts will be an even grimmer joke than they already are.

    Everywhere I see people speculating in an offhand way, the scientifically inclined seem dismissive that we’ll reach the level of devastation in the Great Dying, but just these few things I’ve worked out for myself lean pretty hard in that direction. At the very least, it looks like -before this is over- we’ll have as much impact as that comet in the Yucatan.

    I know scientists avoid trading in speculation, but having a firmer picture of what comes next here would do a lot for reality checking the heads of state. To the extent that’s even possible.

  2. tuatara says

    I work in the solar industry in Australia. I am often dealing with requests for domestic solar system designs to offset someone’s 70+kWh/day energy addiction. And it is an addiction. The only reason they are contemplating solar energy is to reduce their own electricity costs because, at my location here in Oz, 70kWh/day costs about $8,000 per year on a common flat-rate tariff. They don’t actually give a fuck for the climate because these people by-and-large are wanting it for their fucking climate-controlled wine cellars, and heated swimming pools 200m from the pacific ocean that has a temperature today of 19.4°C, and it is the middle of winter.

    As far as I am concerned ‘energy as a service’ can go to hell.


    Oh yeah, and as well as that, I often get the old “I don’t want to see the solar modules because they ruin the look of my new architecturally designed home” comment for a home that turns out to have a roof that the architect has designed with zero consideration for the installation of a solar array, and for good measure has zero passive thermal regulation built in.

    I agree that carbon capture and sequestration is a distraction and is not a “cornerstone of climate change mitigation” at all unless it can be scaled up millions of times or more, which seems incredibly unlikely to me.

    I certainly don’t know what the solution is, but smoking the energy crack-pipe like there is no tomorrow (the way people that I often have to deal with do) isn’t it.

  3. says

    Yeah, 6 degrees is a rough read.

    I might start delving more explicitly into how bad things are going to get, but I feel like it’s worth noting that I do talk about it regularly, I just try to frame it with things we can do to avoid that outcome.

  4. says

    @Tuatara – Yeah. It’s infuriating to me, and I don’t generally have to interact with people like that. I wish I saw an easier way that changing everything about how we do everything, but it doesn’t seem like there is.

    Capitalism, and all the moral philosophies attending it, must be ended.

  5. Odess@89 says

    I would be fully on board with this argument if it weren’t for the fact that carbon sequestration is currently the second best tactic we have for avoiding 2+ degrees warming. Obviously switching carbon emitting power sources to renewables is best. But so far, we are avoiding about 200 million + tons of C02 per year with renewables. Yes, that’s much more impact that CSS. But it is still a drop in the bucket.

    One thing the findings of that study obscure is the fact that, before 2020 or so, carbon sequestration was a joke. No one did it. No one cared. Now, capacity has exploded in the past few years. It will likely continue to surge and potentially even grow exponentially.

    CSS isn’t a distraction that we can’t afford. It’s one of the few tactics we *can* afford. And we’re in a position where we need to use every trick in the book.

  6. says

    @Odess – As I said in the first line, I’m in favor of carbon sequestration, just not this approach to it. We already need to move a LOT of our food production indoors to protect it from the climate chaos we’ve created. That will free up a lot of farmland that can be used to grow, harvest, and store fast-growing stuff like kudzu, grass, or hemp. This is stuff we could start doing now, and has the potential to sequester hundreds of millions of tons of carbon per year. It would also, however, require significant investment without hope of profit.

    If people were talking about doing that, I’d believe it was being taken seriously. As it stands I think it’s more likely another corporate shell game to avoid the systemic change we need. As long as it’s presented as an alternative to ending fossil fuel use, it’s being used to delay much more urgent and important action.

  7. John Morales says

    I would be fully on board with this argument if it weren’t for the fact that carbon sequestration is currently the second best tactic we have for avoiding 2+ degrees warming.

    Nah, it’s about the 20th best — not only is it in its technological infancy, but it presumes fossil fuel use will be ongoing.
    Worse, it excuses new fossil fuel developments, since at some $date they will be offset by this proposed technology. Kicking the can down the road.

    One thing the findings of that study obscure is the fact that, before 2020 or so, carbon sequestration was a joke. No one did it. No one cared.

    Here in Australia, the Coalition government (the analogue of the USA’s Republicans) have backed carbon capture as the main mechanism for decades.
    Carry on as usual with developing fossil fuel resources, subsidise a few token hundred million dollars in research for carbon capture, all good.


    And we’re in a position where we need to use every trick in the book.

    True. But then, as the hoary old saying has it: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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