Young folks and the yet-to-be born deserve honest talk on carbon capture and storage technologies

Optimistic politicians often focus on high-tech solutions to the climate crisis, but are their assumptions realistic?

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      Last night, CBC News viewers were treated to a hopeful story about the climate breakdown.

      Reporter Chris Brown travelled to Iceland to cover technology "that might be able to help a warming planet, save melting glaciers, and stop the clock on climate change".

      Wow! That got my attention.

      Brown, who used to be based in Vancouver, is one of the good guys on climate coverage. He's been tracking this subject for years. For me, he's been one of the few trusted voices in the Canadian media on this subject.

      But in the wake of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in Vancouver, I've become even more skeptical about the value of Pollyannaish climate coverage.

      Brown's story was about the Orca—touted by its creator, Climeworks, as "the world's first and largest climate-positive direct air capture and storage plant". 

      According to the company's website, it has annual capture capacity of 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, all powered by clean, green geothermal power.

      One ton is equivalent to 0.91 metric tonnes.

      To offer some perspective, Canada emitted 730 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, according to the federal government.

      It would take almost 200 years for the Orca plant, at its current capacity, to remove all the Canadian emissions from the air from this single year.

      That's to say nothing of the 14.1 billion metric tonnes emitted in China in 2019. A fair number of these emissions were to produce goods for western industrialized countries. Or the 6.59 billion metric tonnes emitted by the U.S. in 2019.

      Still, Climeworks has attracted investment from Microsoft and is one of several efforts underway to suck carbon directly out of the atmosphere.

      B.C. government touts direct air capture

      B.C. has also gotten into this game.

      On October 14, the NDP government announced a $2-million contribution to a clean-fuel project in Merritt. It's designed to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

      "This innovative, world-leading project will support our economy’s shift away from fossil fuels while creating new jobs and opportunities for British Columbians," declared Energy, Mines and Low-Carbon Innovation Minister Bruce Ralston in a news release.

      It's being developed by Huron Clean Energy, which is based in Squamish. It has a partnership with Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and a licensing agreement with B.C.-based Carbon Engineering.

      "Carbon Engineering’s climate solutions were developed here at home in Canada, with B.C. providing the ideal location for our company to innovate and grow," Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldham said in a backgrounder to the release.

      "I couldn’t think of a more fitting location for the proposed development of our first commercial air to fuels plant. Our Canadian-made solutions have the potential to be key tools in the efforts to achieve the Province’s CleanBC and Canada’s net zero goals, and we’re grateful for the B.C. government’s continued support and commitment to the low-carbon transition.”

      While it's worth applauding those trying to address the climate crisis through technology, it's also important to retain some perspective. This is particularly crucial in the lead-up to the COP26 climate meetings in Glasgow where climate targets will be a topic of discussion.

      That's because the magnitude of emissions are already so high.

      In July, skepticism about carbon capture and storage technologies was laid out in a blunt letter to Justin Trudeau and four of his cabinet ministers. It was signed by hundreds of organizations.

      "Simply put, technological carbon capture is a dangerous distraction," they wrote. "We don't need to fix fossil fuels, we need to ditch them."

      Despite these groups' concerns, we're likely to be bombarded with more good-news climate stories like the coverage accorded to the plant in Merritt and the project in Iceland. And carbon capture, utilization, and storage is a key component of Canada and B.C.'s plans for reducing overall emissions.

      European report issued alarming conclusions

      Now, for some cold water.

      A 2018 report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council delved into the role that these negative-emission technologies can play in the world meeting its Paris Agreement targets.

      This peer-reviewed publication looked at, among other things, direct air capture and carbon storage.

      "The need for high temperature heat is clearly a drawback of this process," the appendix on this technology states. "For the process to be sustainable, waste heat or heat from renewable sources would be necessary.

      "The process also requires heat integration between solid particulate streams, which may require advanced engineering solutions. Operating issues include water loss, scaling and corrosion."

      Another issue of concern is the overall concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's equal to about 0.04 percent, which means that it can involve more effort and energy to capture carbon from the air than from point sources.

      The 2018 report notes that the B.C. company, Carbon Engineering, was removing one tonne of carbon dioxide per day at a demonstration plant. That adds up to 365 tonnes on an annual basis if it were operating 365 days per year when the report was written.

      In 2018, B.C.'s overall emissions were 67.9 million tonnes.

      Climeworks had a commercial operation capable of removing 990 tonnes per year in 2018, according to the report. Now, it's about four times that amount. Two other companies, Infinitree and Global Thermostat, were either in the research-and-concept phase or launching a pilot and commercial demonstration.

      Furthermore, the appendix states that direct air capture and carbon storage "becomes more important and economic the later strong emission reductions take place, because then more CO2 is present in the atmosphere".

      By the end of the second half of the 21st century, direct air capture could remove up to 38.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to two research papers cited in the document.

      Now, for some other numbers. The International Energy Agency reports that global emissions reached 33 billion tonnes in 2019.

      So, it's easy to conclude that all the carbon dioxide that could be sucked out of the atmosphere by the end of this century will have some effect, but not anywhere near enough to stave off a climate catastrophe.

      The European Academies Science Advisory Council says this in its report regarding all negative-emission technologies, including direct air capture.

      The council declares that these technologies are "certainly no 'silver bullet'—a point that should drive policy-makers to renewed efforts to accelerate emissions reduction".

      It notes that placing unrealistic expectations on technologies could have "irreversibly damaging consequences on future generations in the event of them failing to deliver".

      That, it adds, would be the "antithesis of sustainable development".

      "One factor possibly contributing to a lack of urgency may be the belief that somehow 'technology' will come to the rescue," the report states in its foreword.

      "The present report shows that such expectations may be seriously over-optimistic," it continues.

      The report acknowledges that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's future scenarios allow for the deployment of carbon-capture technologies from the air in achieving the Paris targets.

      "However, putting a hypothetical technology into a computer model of future scenarios is rather different than researching, developing, constructing and operating such a technology at the planetary scale required to compensate for inadequate mitigation," it adds.

      Moreover, the report states: "Evaluations comparing the emission reduction plans submitted by countries with those required on the basis of science, show how large a gap remains between countries' plans and the reductions required."

      Canada was one of many countries to experience horrific wildfires in 2021.
      Michael Held/Unsplash

      Canada's record deemed "highly insufficient"

      So where does Canada stand on reductions. Here's what you will read on the Climate Action Tracker website:

      * Overall rating: highly insufficient

      * Policies & action: highly insufficient

      * Domestic target: almost sufficient

      * Fair share target: insufficient

      * Climate finance: highly insufficient

      * Land use & forestry: relevant

      * Net-zero target: average

      "Canada has been feeling the brunt of climate impacts, with deadly heat waves and devastating forest fires on its West Coast," Climate Action Tracker states. "Recent climate policy developments, while positive, are insufficient to address the climate crisis.

      "The country’s new and stronger 2030 target is not quite Paris compatible," it continues. "Its revised climate plan and additional measures announced in the 2021 federal budget are insufficient to meet that target. Canada continues to face challenges in implementing policies. We estimate that Canada has missed its 2020 target, even with the pandemic emissions drop."

      The organizations that wrote to the prime minister and four cabinet ministers in July described carbon-capture schemes as "unnecessary, ineffective, exceptionally risky, and at odds with a just energy transition and the principles of environmental justice".

      But this perspective is rarely reflected in the mainstream media coverage or in politicians' pronouncements about negative-emissions technologies.

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, B.C. premier John Horgan, and many other Canadian politicians want us to believe that technology is going to play a critical role in solving our climate conundrum. But is this just another way of delaying the hard work of making deep emissions cuts for the benefit of future generations?

      It's time for Canada to have a true and honest debate on this subject before it's too late.

      The clock has not stopped on climate change. It continues ticking on all of us.