Most of the people in the room when the United States gave its sole presentation last week at COP23 — the United Nations climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany — were protesters. Around the 20-minute mark, 100 people — mostly Americans — stood up, sang an altered version of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” turned their backs to the panel of White House officials and fossil fuel industry representatives, and walked out. The event then continued before a room filled mainly with journalists.
Panelists soldiered on, peddling one of the Trump administration’s favorite lies: clean coal, or what Trump himself loves to call “beautiful, clean coal.”
Last week was the first time administration officials and their chosen partners — natural gas, coal, and nuclear companies — expounded at length on their strategy on energy both in the United States and around the world, promoting a global vision for continued coal production along with a scale-up in nuclear and natural gas. That the presentation revolved so heavily around so-called clean coal technology — one form of carbon capture and storage, CCS for short, in some iterations — shouldn’t come as a surprise. The phrase has been one of President Donald Trump’s go-to talking points since early on in the campaign trail. At a rally in Phoenix this summer, he announced that, “We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal … They’re going to take out clean coal — meaning, they’re taking out coal. They’re going to clean it.”
Holly Krutka, a representative from Peabody Energy who spoke on the U.S. panel, offered her own explanation of what clean coal is. While she spoke in lucid and complete sentences, walking through the various efficiency technologies, she was no more tethered to reality than Trump. Like the White House’s own proxies, she framed continued coal usage as a moral and ethical imperative and a vehicle for bringing developing nations out of poverty: “While some people clearly believe there is no path forward for fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world, we don’t believe that is the case. The discussion needs to be not if we use coal, but how.”
CCS can refer to any number of inchoate technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of certain industrial processes, potentially including coal-fired power generation. So-called clean coal doesn’t have a standard definition, but the most charitable reading of the term involves capturing the carbon dioxide generated by coal-fired power plants and either storing it or inserting it into some other productive process. There are currently 17 large-scale CCS projects worldwide, with four more set to launch in 2018.
Its track record so far has been spotty. The Bush-era FutureGen CCS project was imagined as a way to highlight the potential of integrating carbon capture into coal production. After receiving $1 billion in stimulus funds, the project remained plagued by financial troubles and chronically missed its deadlines, eventually leading the Department of Energy to suspend it altogether in 2015. Another showcase CCS project on a power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, owned by the utility Southern Company, went $4 billion over budget and way behind schedule before switching from coal to natural gas earlier this year. An NRG-owned CCS pilot in Texas, at the Petro Nova plant, has been more successful. That project clocked in on schedule and without going over budget, though only after receiving hearty financial support from the Obama administration. CCS is not yet commercially viable, and CCS projects are too costly to operate without considerable state funds. Private investors in such technologies have also suffered huge losses.
Krutka, an expert on CCS from the industry side who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering, lamented the dearth of funding for CCS and the lack of attention it gets compared to renewable energy sources, even though extractive companies in the United States can take advantage of the generous Section 45Q tax credit for implementing — or claiming to be on the path to implementing — carbon capture. Other panelists opined on the “anti-fossil fuel bias” of international institutions, despite the fact that G20 nations finance fossil fuel projects at four times the rate of renewables. In the United States, the split is even more dramatic: U.S. public finance institutions give $6 billion to fossil fuel companies each year, compared to the $1 billion handed out for renewables. Increased use of “efficient” fossil fuels, panelists contended — involving even more public funding — is necessary for the world to meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement, and the world’s governments simply aren’t doing their part.
Physics tells a different story. If exhausted, the world’s existing oil, gas, and coal reserves would see the world soar well beyond the 2-degrees Celsius warming cap agreed upon in Paris in 2015. Developing existing oil and gas reserves alone would raise the global temperature by 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to a 2016 study by Oil Change International. Conservative estimates for meeting even the highest bound of the Paris targets call for a total decarbonization of the world economy by 2050, and well before that in highly developed countries like the United States.
In such a context, scientists warn that continued coal use — with CCS or not — simply isn’t worth the cost. “Clean coal is a very, very dangerous word,” said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the U.K.-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Like most people taking a sober look at climate projections, Le Quéré sees CCS as a critical investment — just not when it comes to clearing the way for more coal development. “I don’t think coal is clean at all,” she told The Intercept. “Coal is dirty and produces a lot of emissions. It doesn’t produce as much energy for the emissions as oil and gas. Period. So yes, you can do a little bit to have it be more efficient, but you cannot do a lot. If the U.S. was to develop CCS, then that would be the best contribution they could do now, but they would have to be really very serious about the deployment and implementation of CCS.”
That means the United States must offer more than the tax credits or regulatory rollbacks that have defined the Trump administration’s energy policy so far. Expanding CCS in earnest would mean that “every power plant that is developed has capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide on the ground” within a decade or two, Le Quéré said, “and with demonstrated large-scale implementation in the next few years.”
Of the 17 operational large-scale CCS facilities worldwide, the vast majority funnel captured carbon dioxide back into oil extraction, or “enhanced oil recovery.” That fact that has led some to coin the acronym CCUS: Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage, a nod to the fact that captured emissions aren’t always stored. That second “C” — capture — is harder to do and less profitable than simply feeding CO2 into oil production, involving not just considerable amounts of research and development, but also a massive infrastructure build-out to create a network of pipelines far larger than that which currently ferries oil and natural gas around the world.
While CCS installation would represent a significant reduction in emissions from coal plants, the savings wouldn’t be likely to outweigh the harm of putting more coal into the world’s energy mix. “Even coal with CCS is going to carry quite a bit of emissions, and some scenarios — particularly 1.5-degree scenarios — would indicate that you can’t even have coal with CCS because it just emits too much,” another climate scientist, Glen Peters, told The Intercept. “With coal, there are other options to produce electricity. If there are other options, use those. It’s cheaper.” He and Le Quéré were in Bonn to present their new report, which finds that after several stable years, global emissions are rising again. In large part, that’s thanks to the United States and European Union being unable to compensate for increased emissions from developing countries, which have by and large experienced fossil-fueled economic growth over the last few years.
Daunting emissions scenarios aside, how the Trump administration’s bravado on clean coal will translate into reality remains to be seen. “I’ve yet to really understand what the Trump administration means by the term clean coal,” said Brad Page, chief executive officer of the Global CCS Institute, an international group of governmental and corporate partners pushing CCS deployment. “Generally what I hear people talk about clean coal as meaning is really just using the latest, most efficient technology for burning coal in power plants. CCS is there to capture the carbon dioxide and deal with it. These other [clean coal] technologies simply burn a fossil fuel more efficiently but are still highly emissive.”
Embracing clean coal and CCS, in other words, are very different things. Climate projections are painfully clear that we need the latter. Indeed, the models world leaders are crafting their climate policies around aren’t prepared for a future without them.
Climate models from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now assume that the technology for large-scale CCS already exists and can be scaled up rapidly so long as the price comes down, along with a global price on carbon. “Scenarios in which all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available,” an official summary of the most recent IPCC assessment report states, “have been used as a cost-effective benchmark for estimating macroeconomic mitigation costs.” Even boosters of more controversial forms of CCS agree at least in part that scaling up CCS will require a mix of supply and demand-side action: massive investment in research and development alongside a strong carbon price, which could still be years away in the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
This should disturb anyone interested in living in a world defined by anything other than climate catastrophe. The body charged with predicting the future of life on earth is basing its models for understanding that future on a policy landscape that doesn’t exist, prioritizing a concern for economic growth and efficiency over human survival.
“We have to be cautious about the idea that new technology will solve the problem,” Kevin Anderson, also of the Tyndall Center, told The Intercept. “Established technologies we understand quite well. We know solar panels fairly well. What we don’t know are things like energy storage, and to just assume that they’re going to work is dangerous.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have integrated assessment models. They just shouldn’t dominate how we understand the future. And they’re opaque,” Anderson added. “Models are great things, but I think once they get above a certain size, they’re much more about supporting a particular position than to inform … They’re a learning tool. They’re not there to tell you about the future.”
It’s not as if the U.S. government is alone in its embrace of either risky technologies or fossil fuels. China, making impressive progress on renewables and a slate of other climate measures, is financing coal plants throughout Africa. Germany — long-heralded as a pioneer in transitioning away from fossil fuels — remains one of Europe’s largest coal producers, mining a particularly dirty form called lignite. Against the urging of green groups, Chancellor Angela Merkel, now in the midst of attempting to cobble together a government, gave no signal in her address Wednesday that she would try to change that. As they stand now, each country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions would send the world well beyond 3 degrees Celsius of warming, more than double the level that small island states have urged is needed for their survival. A global stocktake next year will start to reassess some of these commitments, but big changes aren’t likely to happen until 2023. The United States, it turns out, may be less of a pariah on climate than we might assume.
That shouldn’t suggest that America isn’t an outcast, and that the criticism the administration has faced at COP23 isn’t well-deserved. The White House stands alone on the world stage in its outright endorsement of climate denial, and many Americans — certainly those on the ground in Germany last week, and most of all the ones who interrupted Monday’s panel — are at odds with the Trump administration’s position. Yet baked into the climate negotiations themselves is a quieter kind of denial than the administration’s, in which climate policies are crafted not to align with mounting physical realities, but with the economics that got us into this mess in the first place.
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