A personal view from Hugh Richards
In May 2016, Shell produced a publication  containing the following:
“. . . the ambition contained within the Paris Agreement offers little room for flexibility. It implies dramatic and simultaneous shifts in both the composition of energy supplies (with extraordinary growth of lower- and zero-carbon energy sources, including renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels with CCS) and the way whole sectors and individuals use energy . . . All this needs to be achieved over the course of this century, although a mid-century date will loom large as policymakers consider the 1.5 °C ambition coming from Paris. And it assumes CCS is actually deployed. If it isn’t, then we are left to deal with a clear message from IPCC Assessment Report 5: “Many models could not limit likely warming to below 2 °C if bioenergy, CCS and their combination (BECCS) are limited.”
It goes on to say:
“To limit the temperature rise to 1.5 °C would require [global] net-zero emissions around 2050, followed thereafter by net-negative emissions. Most pathways for 2 °C require [global] emissions reductions beginning by 2020. Every year society delays action to substantially and steadily reduce global emissions brings forward by at least a year the point at which emissions of CO2 must reach net zero.”
It is hard to take issue with much of this, with the possible exception (for some) of the underlying assumptions about growth in global population and energy demand, or the projected increase in nuclear power and/or the use of fossil fuels with carbon capture and (geological) storage (CCS) – perhaps particularly “BECCS”.
Shell point out that, as well as being an option for decarbonising electricity generation, CCS is the only plausible option for decarbonising large industrial processes, steel-making and cement manufacture. CCS does not yet exist at scale, yet Shell use a projection in which energy from fossil fuels with CCS outstrips nuclear by the mid- to late 2030s. Is this credible for a technology that adds major costs and reduces the useful energy obtained, compared with unabated fossil fuel use?
Shell’s response is that CCS faces “a number of non-technical challenges, especially in relation to permitting and financing. To get CCS off the ground at scale, favourable geology must be combined with socio-political support and financing mechanisms.”
After interviewing David Hone (Chief Climate Change Adviser at Shell), the writer and activist George Marshall wrote in 2014:  “Maybe CCS can work. I hope it does . . . My fear, though, is that CCS is less of a real solution than a much-needed narrative ploy [of the fossil fuel industry] . . . For narrative purposes, CCS does not need to work on a large scale . . . It scarcely needs to work at all. All that is required is . . . a few demonstration sites, some chunky reports. And then lots of creative storytelling about human ingenuity.”
In November 2016, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), which includes BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco and Total, announced a 10-year $1bn fund, some of which will contribute to CCS development. Compare this with the £1bn “saved” by the UK Government in cancelling a large-scale CCS demonstration project, and it’s not hard to understand the accusation from some quarters that the OGCI money is just “greenwash”, costing very little in comparison to the contributors’ annual expenditures.
So how should people concerned about climate change regard CCS? Should we advocate for it, as we do for renewable energy, or oppose it as a “smokescreen” by the fossil fuel industry to allow it to carry on extracting as if climate change were not a threat? Should we praise companies like Shell that publicly accept the challenge that climate change presents, or regard their output on climate change (including CCS) as “greenwash”?
Despite being more informed than most people about CCS (but not an expert), I am genuinely unsure how to answer these questions. I would like to see more informed public dialogue on the subject, and especially a reasoned response by CCS proponents to the “greenwash” accusation (if they can muster one).
As a geologist, I tend to agree with Shell that the main barriers to up-scaling CCS are not technical but political and financial. In my ideal world, we would be moving swiftly towards a position where extraction of fossil fuels is only permitted if the extracting organisation undertakes or funds equivalent CCS to make the operation carbon-neutral. Perhaps this approach could be pioneered in the UK as a way of negating the climate change impacts of starting to exploit shale gas (or making it uneconomic to do it at all). If Government funding is needed to get CCS started, perhaps it should be first directed towards industries that command wide public support, such as steel-making, rather than giving a life-line to coal-fired power generation, or supporting dubious bio-energy schemes.
With its favourable offshore geology, increasing stock of depleted offshore oil and gas reservoirs and associated infrastructure and expertise, the UK may be well-placed to become a leader in CCS, with all the socio-economic benefits associated with a major infrastructure initiative, provided a politically acceptable way can be found to pay for it. In September 2016, a UK Parliamentary Advisory Group (containing members with backgrounds ranging from Shell to Friends of the Earth) published a remarkably positive report  on why and how CCS should and could start to be implemented in the UK, without delay. Perhaps as the political narratives in the UK and elsewhere start to favour investment in infrastructure, opportunities to make CCS a reality may start to open up.
Coincidentally, there is even a Gloucestershire dimension to all of this. The International Energy Agency’s body for managing CCS R&D (www.ieaghg.org) is based in Cheltenham.
 Shell: A Better Life with a Healthy Planet: Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions, May 2016 (available online).
 George Marshall: Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, Bloomsbury, 2014.
3] Oxburgh: Lowest Cost Decarbonisation for the UK: The Critical Role of CCS. Report to the Secretary of State for BEIS from the Parliamentary Advisory Group on CCS. September 2016 (available online).
Posts on these blog pages are the personal views of the authors only and are not intended to represent any agreed or general view on the part of GlosCAN.org.