IPCC Scientists Say Carbon Capture Unproven at Scale

IPCC Scientists Say Carbon Capture Unproven at Scale

The latest UN climate report is all about solutions. But according to IPCC scientists, carbon capture and carbon dioxide removal -- two primary solutions the report deems “unavoidable” -- don’t work at scale. Despite this week’s news that several large tech and consulting companies have invested $925 million in carbon capture technologies, scientists argue that relying on unproven technologies with uncertain social and environmental impacts distracts from the real focus of eliminating the source of emissions.

“We can’t just reduce fossil fuels, we must fully phase out fossil fuels,” writes Linda Schneider, a senior program officer for international climate policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation and an expert reviewer and observer, for Grist. “And we must do so before 2050.”

IPCC: IPCC Sixth Assessment Report - Climate Change 2022 | Mitigation of Climate Change trailer, April 4, 2022.

Ernergi Media: IEA says CCUS key to net-zero by 2050, January 27, 2022.

Why This Matters

To borrow Schneider’s language, “The result of betting on speculative and dangerous technologies is that it buys the fossil fuel industry more time for extraction.”

In other words, assuming that carbon capture and carbon removal are “unavoidable” provides the leeway to keep using coal, oil, and gas under the assumption that the impacts of their emissions will be scrubbed away. Whereas the best solution would be to keep fossil fuels in the ground and for the Global North, whose emissions have caused the bulk of the climate crisis, to focus on reducing consumption and production. Any chance of keeping global warming below the 1.5-degree mark rests on this.

CBS: Huge carbon emissions cuts needed, UN climate report finds, April 4, 2022.

Bloomberg: Can Carbon Capture Reverse Climate Change?, March 23, 2022.

FT: Carbon capture | The hopes, challenges and controversies, April 5, 2022.

Behind The IPCC Scenes

As Schneider describes, the IPCC as a body relies on “integrated assessment modeling,” which generates future scenarios based on climate and economic data. The models aren’t accessible to outsiders, and they assume that infinite economic growth is both possible and positive. They don’t take equity or environmental justice into account.

Beyond baseline ways the IPCC process could be improved, this report also had a last-minute change: language in the Summary for Policymakers. The abbreviated topline version of the massive report was weakened from calling for fossil fuels to be left in the ground to proclaiming they could be used much longer with carbon-capture storage.

“These changes were pushed by oil-producing countries, but modelers -- many of whom are IPCC authors and hold the pen in the negotiations -- also shoulder some of the responsibility, because the modeling literature underlying the report relies so heavily on techno-fixes,” Schneider writes, referring to technologies that could help lessen climate change impacts.

Democracy Now: Bill McKibben | Latest IPCC Climate Report Underscores "Fossil Fuel Is at the Root of Our Problems," April 7, 2022.

Simon Clark: The rotten core of the new IPCC report, April 9, 2022.

Mallen Baker: Why climate scientists HATE the new IPCC report (carbon capture shock), April 11, 2022.

IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.