Since 1995 there have been 25 global conferences on climate change. At every one our so-called political leaders have kicked the can down the road and sung from a bright green hymnbook.
She is right of course. Blah, blah blah has kept emissions rising, along with energy spending and its twin sibling unbridled economic growth.
Blah, blah blah has become the standard substitute for the conversation that needs to occur at global conferences and in every public venue: how to shrink the economy and beat a sustainable retreat?
Of course such a conversation is considered impossible by our leaders who are ruled by the mantra of growth and short-term election hurdles.
So in Canada, the world’s fourth largest oil exporting nation, the blah blah blah refrain gets louder by the day. We want our emissions and our green cake, too.
Politicians and the Canada Energy Regulator claim, for example, that “carbon capture, utilization and storage can play an essential role in the transition to a prosperous net-zero economy.”
Meanwhile the media churns out daily stories on how grey, blue or green hydrogen will power our trains and planes. Maybe pink hydrogen will be next.
Millions of electric vehicles, of course, will replace the evil combustion engine and place us in an automated landscape where we don’t have to think about driving or owning vehicles. Amazon and Google will do that for us.
At the same time, G20 leaders asks us to believe that “people, the planet and prosperity” can go together as we follow a line called exponential economic growth.
And if renewables can’t electrify everything and the Green New Deal falters, then direct air capture will suck the CO2 out of air and bring us closer to a rapturous net-zero world.
Unfortunately no such thing as “clean energy” truly exists. Every form of energy comes with an ecological cost and has physical limits.
Let’s examine four heavily hyped technologies upon which the have-it-all crowd rest their dreams: carbon capture, utilization and storage; direct air capture; dematerialization; and hydrogen power. (We’ll leave electric vehicles for another day.)
Carbon capture and storage
For more than two decades politicians, academics and industrialists have promised great things from carbon capture and storage, or CCS. But after years of trial and error and multiple project cancellations due to prohibitive costs, this highly expensive technology stores less than one-tenth of one per cent of global emissions a year. Even JP Morgan in its 2021 annual energy report sarcastically notes that the “highest ratio in the history of science appears to be the number of academic papers written about CCS compared to its real life implementation.”
Meanwhile the International Energy Agency boasts that carbon capture and storage can help heavy industry remove 13 per cent of global emissions in one of its Clean Technology Scenarios. For the record Canada has three CCS facilities (two in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan). All were subsidized with tax dollars and Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam project never reached its carbon targets.
Carbon capture, utilization and storage gives new meaning to the term energy intensity. First it must capture CO2 emitted from an oilsands plant or fertilizer maker. Then it must transport the gas in a pipeline to a graveyard. Next it buries the CO2 by compressing it into a liquid and injecting it deep into the ground. The government must monitor the storage site to make sure it doesn’t leak for more than a thousand years. The injection process can contaminate groundwater, trigger earthquakes and sprout leaks to the surface. (Alberta’s taxpayers have assumed all liabilities for the long-term carbon storage underground at its two facilities.)
The energy ecologist Vaclav Smil considers CCS a ridiculous endeavour because it will never scale up fast enough to make a dent in global emissions. The global economy now produces about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Tackling 10 per cent of that problem (roughly four billion tons) would require the same infrastructure that now supports the entire global oil industry, which produces four billion tons of oil a year.
“It took us 100-plus years to develop an oil industry, which is taking four billion tons out of the ground… and then taking it up and refining and using it,” explained Smil in a recent interview.
“Now we would have to develop a new industry, which would take four billion tons, and store it… and guarantee that it will stay there forever. Something like this cannot be done in five, or 10, or 15 years. And this is 10 per cent. So, simply on the matter of scale, carbon sequestration is just simply dead on arrival.”
Direct air capture
If technicians can’t figure a way to economically bury the globe’s carbon waste stream why then not capture it in the air and use it in a greenhouse or as a fuel? Although this pitch sounds tantalizing, its material and energy demands are herculean.
The technology basically uses big fans to suck lots of air and then filters that air through a chemical soup — such as an aqueous hydroxide solution — to remove the carbon. It’s highly energy intensive because the machines must suck huge volumes of air to remove small amounts of carbon. Small scale projects are being tested in British Columbia, Iceland, Switzerland and Texas.
Like carbon capture and storage, direct air capture doesn’t scale up very well. Researchers recently calculated that if the world deployed direct air capture using a chemical reaction that relies on caustic soda to break down CO2 emissions to water and sodium carbonate, it would require a new mining industry.
Just to capture 25 per cent of global emissions, it would need a system of extracting caustic soda that is 20 to 40 times greater than current global production. And this system would consume 15 to 24 per cent of the world’s primary energy spending to get the job done.
The technology also has a big footprint. An industrial factory, powered by natural gas and capable of removing just one billion tons of carbon out of the 37 billion tons emitted per year, would occupy an area five times greater than Los Angeles. If powered by solar energy such a factory would require a landmass 10 times greater than Delaware.
In other words don’t expect a direct air capture unit in your backyard soon. One group of researchers concluded that the technology “is unfortunately an energetically and financially costly distraction in effective mitigation of climate changes at a meaningful scale.” Another recent study concluded that carbon capture and storage and direct air capture projects emit more carbon than they remove or store.
Dematerialization is seen by many academics as another blessed path for reducing global emissions. The word refers to using fewer materials or less energy to make stuff. But there’s a big problem making more efficient and cheaper stuff and it’s called Jevons’ Paradox.
In the 19th century, the British engineer William Jevons thought more efficient steam engines might result in less coal burning. But that’s not what he found. Efficient steam engines accelerated coal consumption as more industries found more uses for steam engines.
LED lights work the same way: they save energy. But their efficiency and cheapness encourages wider adoption of the technology (everything from carpets to toys). As a result LEDs result in more energy and material spending. Efficient combustion engines didn’t result in fewer drivers but in more drivers demanding bigger and more wasteful SUVs.
Renewables aren’t exempt from Jevons’ Paradox either. To date solar and wind energy haven’t retired a single fossil fuel because they have been used to supplement more energy spending.
A group of MIT researchers recently looked at 57 cases of dematerialization and asked if these products kept more resources and energy in the ground, unspent. They found that Jevons’ Paradox ruled and totally. More efficiency just led to more spending. Their conclusion: “Technological improvement has not resulted in ‘automatic’ dematerialization in these cases.” They also found that environmental impact did not diminish as people got richer.
In the future, hydrogen will play a huge role in decarbonizing the global economy by powering trains, trucks and airplanes. At least that’s the Canadian sales pitch. Although the hydrogen economy has been hyped for years, it has never materialized. Physics and financial and energy realities explain why it will always remain a niche player.
For starters, hydrogen, the least dense energy fuel on the planet, is not an energy source but an energy sink. The gas can’t be mined like oil or methane; it has to be made from methane or water with processes that require lots of energy such as steam reforming or electrolysis.
About 96 per cent of the world’s hydrogen is cracked from methane, largely mined by hydraulic fracturing. Hydrogen cracked from methane produces greenhouse gas emissions on the scale of the world’s aviation industry or greater.
But hydrogen now comes with a fancy and deceptive vocabulary. Grey hydrogen is made from methane. Blue hydrogen is made from methane whose CO2 emissions have been buried underground by carbon capture and storage systems that largely don’t exist. And green hydrogen comes from solar or wind power erected and maintained by fossil fuels. (Brown hydrogen comes from coal but nobody really wants that colour.)
Yes, it is possible to make so-called green hydrogen from water via electrolysis. But that takes energy too, and lots of capital. (One unit of hydrogen made from methane costs less than a dollar while so-called green hydrogen costs on average more than $7 a unit.)
The astute U.S. energy critic Alice Friedemann has calculated that it takes about four units of energy to make one unit of hydrogen energy. “If you don’t understand this concept, please mail me ten dollars and I’ll send you back a dollar,” quips Friedemann.
These kind of profound energy losses makes hydrogen a dead end. But it also explains why natural gas exporters (Russia, the Middle East and Alberta) like to talk up the potential of hydrogen like used car salesmen. “Blue hydrogen” just ensures more natural gas sales.
But can’t fuel cells act as a green alternative to combustion engines and diesel generators? Yes, to a limited degree. But the fuel cell consumes rare minerals. The polymer membrane fuel cell, for example, needs platinum to work.
The Italian physicist Ugo Bardi, who calls himself “a former hydrogenist,” has calculated that “if you were to replace the current combustion vehicles with fuel cells, the world couldn’t produce enough platinum.”
Even the usual tech cheering crowd, such as energy analyst Wood Mackenzie, have doubts about the current hydrogen buzz amounting to anything. “Realistically, it’ll be another decade before hydrogen starts to make a meaningful contribution to decarbonization,” says Mackenzie.
The evidence here from just four so-called net-zero solutions shows that blah blah blah leads to energy dead ends and an avoidance of the real solution: economic contraction.
Can we really slow our economy to the point that it shrinks without plunging people into grim lifestyles, like those that climate change will most assuredly impose on civilization if we don’t address the ecological crisis? Yes, we can. Will we do so to avoid calamity? Probably not.
Will we even have that conversation? Maybe.