The Zombie Technofix

Relying on unproven technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage is a dangerous distraction from the systematic changes required to tackle climate change. (also published on The Ecologist)

The idea of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has a lot of support, particularly from those in the fossil fuel industry and governments seeking a quick fix for decarbonising their economies. The Paris Agreement, the latest attempt to tackle climate change within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, relies on it heavily. However, there are problems. CCS has proven extremely difficult to implement at any scale. And more fundamentally, the promise of using a technological solution – a ‘technofix’ – to solve the environment’s problems, serves to postpone the radical societal and economic changes necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Yet like a zombie, the idea of CCS refuses to die.

CCS in the UK

Carbon Capture and Storage is the process of capturing carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels in power stations, and other industrial processes, and burying it underground to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. It is proposed as a technological solution to climate change, allowing the continued use of fossil fuels while preventing the waste emissions from warming the planet. CCS is also, less commonly, used to describe technologies which remove (or ‘scrub’) carbon dioxide directly from ambient air.

There have been several attempts to establish CCS projects in the UK. The latest involves Drax power station in Yorkshire, which currently burns coal and biomass (in the form of wood pellets), and is planning to replace coal with gas.

The previous CCS competition for a £1 billion contract was scrapped in 2015 after the Treasury pulled its pledged funding, with the then-chancellor George Osborne saying it was too costly. It was the second attempt by government to launch CCS in UK. A first competition to kick-start CCS was cancelled in 2011 when Scottish Power, and its partners Shell and National Grid, withdrew from the project at Longanet power station in Scotland, saying £1billion wasn’t sufficient subsidy to make it viable. The government had already spent £68m on the scheme.

At the time it was cancelled, the second competition had two preferred bidders: the White Rose consortium in North Yorkshire, which planned to build a new coal plant with the technology (see our previous article), and Shell’s scheme in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, to fit CCS to an existing gas plant operated by SSE. Estimated costs to consumers rocketed to £8.9bn and, after £100 million of government spending, the project was deemed to no longer be cost effective.

Despite no existing demonstrations of the technology actually working at scale, the government and industry remain hopeful that a new CCS project could be viable. So the zombie lives on, and in October last year the government announced its approach to newly-named carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) in the Clean Growth Strategy. The name itself should set off alarm bells, another example of the continuing inability of governments to accept the fundamental contradiction between economic growth and environmental sustainability.

As part of the strategy, in May 2018 it was revealed that Drax would lead a £400k trial to remove CO2 from one of its four biomass burning units, in partnership with University of Leeds spin-off company C-Capture. Ostensibly, the trial is intended to demonstrate the viability of so called BECCS technology (Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage), which is supposed to act as a Negative Emission Technology (NET – a generic name for technologies designed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere). In November 2018, the government also announced a new £20m dedicated fund to help build carbon capture equipment at industrial sites, such as chemicals plants and oil refineries, on top of an existing £100m pot.

A more sceptical, but realistic, interpretation of the Drax trial is that is allows the power station to go on burning highly unsustainable wood pellets, partially sourced from clearcut biodiverse forests in the southern US, while giving the impression that it is going ‘green’. The original move to biomass itself was simply an attempt to stay in business. Forced to accept the non-viability of coal burning (coal power generation is set to be phased out in the UK by 2025 to meet air quality standards), the company moved to biomass, the most lucrative alternative. Drax currently enjoys almost £2m a day in subsidies to burn biomass, paid for by surcharges to energy bills.

Large scale energy generation from biomass is, however, utterly unsustainable and adding CCS to it will do little to change that. In a previous article for Corporate Watch, Almuth Ernsting from Biofuelwatch explained why, due to a fundamental error in it’s representation of the carbon cycle, BECCS could never work, but also why such ‘sci fi’ climate solutions are so prevalent and so dangerous. Even if these kind of solutions have no realistic possibility of being viable, they allow politicians and businesses to give the impression that they are committed to reducing emissions and have strategies to do so. Thus, like the walking dead, new publicly subsidised demonstration projects continue to pop up as others die off.

Technology, Capitalism and Nature

New technologies may be important parts of the process of decarbonisation. But they must complement rather than replace the fundamental changes required to our economies and societies. The enthusiasm for CCS from the governments and institutions around the world is indicative of a much wider problem around technological narratives.

We live in a capitalist world, and technology’s role in our societies is heavily influenced by the thinking and values that come from that. Nature is viewed as something to be controlled and dominated, with technology providing the tools to do this. And while capitalism continues to define the world’s economies, technofixes such as CCS will continue to be supported by those in power.

Corporate Watch’s technofix report, produced in 2008, explains the enduring appeal of technical solutions to social and politically driven ecological problems. It describes how fixating on technologies as solutions ignores the underlying causes of climate change and other ecological crises, treating each of them as separate unrelated issues. It also has a tendency to concentrate power or exacerbate existing inequalities. In order to evaluate the usefulness and appropriateness of technologies we need to ask vital questions such as: Who owns the technology? Who gains from the technology? Who loses? How sustainable is the technology? How likely is the technology to be developed, and when?

If we are to avoid the worst, catastrophic, impacts of climate change and ecological collapse we need to view human societies as being part our wider natural environment, not above of separate from it. Until this existential relationship is resolved technofixes such as CCS and BECCS will only deepen the ecological hole we are digging ourselves. Our relationship with nature may sound like an abstract philosophical issue, but it is precisely these kinds of questions that we must collectively answer.

And it’s not as if we are starting from scratch. While they are diverse and not to be idealised, many indigenous cultures have a radically different view of nature from that currently dominating western thought.

The relationship between nature and capitalism was explored further in our A-Z of green capitalism, published in 2016. It provides an introduction to the ideas surrounding green capitalism, as well as the alternatives to it, and explains why, despite its impossibility, the ‘greening’ of capitalism continues to be promoted as a solution to environmental problems.

Of course bringing about a fundamental change in our relationship with nature requires a radical transformation in how our societies are structured and in our attitudes and behaviours. But it also represents an unique opportunity to shift the direction we are moving in, to make a fairer, freer world where humans live in a more harmonious relationship with the rest of life on our planet. The depth and scale of change required is huge, but we have no other option. When it comes to these issues, radicalism is pragmatism. Climate change is only one of a host of interlinked global ecological crises: biodiversity loss, soil degradation, deforestation, and chemical pollutants all also pose grave threats. Relying on unproven technologies such as CCS to address only one of these problems in isolation is a dangerous distraction from the more profound changes required.

We need systemic change, not an endless horde of zombie technofixes.

Corporate Watch is currently working on a project on technology, if you’d like to know more or want to get involved please email contact[at]corporatewatch.org

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