The detailed science on the fossil industry’s highly-touted carbon capture and storage and carbon dioxide removal technologies is not nearly as optimistic as the summary language in the most recent United Nations report on the topic, veteran climate journalist Amy Westervelt concludes in a recent episode of her Drilled podcast.
With massive political and financial clout lining up behind CCS and CDR, a constant refrain from its proponents is that there’s no other way to hit an ambitious target to bring global greenhouse gas emissions to zero—because the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said so. But that messaging misses a dramatic gap between the negotiated text in the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers [pdf] and the more detailed, unfiltered analysis in the full 2,913-page summary report [pdf], Westervelt says on her self-styled “true crime podcast about climate change”.
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“The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) was significantly more positive about the potential for CDR than the rest of the report, and most media coverage of the report drew almost exclusively for that summary,” Westervelt explains. “But the Summary for Policymakers is the only part of the report that politicians are allowed to weigh in on, and we already know that both Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—two countries with a lot hinging on the potential of CDR to close the gap left by the inaction of their governments and fossil fuel companies—leaned heavily on the IPCC to include positive mentions of carbon removal. So I wasn’t exactly surprised to find that the rest of the report was nowhere near so positive.”
Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), told Westervelt the comparison between the short form and the full analysis reflected a trend he’s seen over the last several IPCC reports. “People will cherry pick individual lines out of the Summary for Policymakers and use those lines, often taken out of context, to spin very simple but deceptive narratives about what the IPCC is saying,” he said. “And nowhere has that been clearer” than in the IPCC’s research and messaging on CCS and CDR.
“To actually explain to people what the IPCC was really saying about these technologies, you had to go through the whole report and pull out… all the cautionary notes the IPCC had included around these technologies,” he added. “There were warning signs flashing everywhere, if you read the whole report.” But judging by the SPM or the press releases that followed, “you would have believed that that the IPCC was doing nothing but singing the praises of these technologies, when nothing could be further from the truth.”
That left it up to groups like CIEL to analyse the documents, “unpack what the IPCC is really saying about these technologies,” and “push back against those oversimplified and, frankly, false narratives that CCS and CDR are the solutions to the climate crisis. Because the IPCC really doesn’t say that.”
Nikki Reisch, director of CIEL’s Climate and Energy Program, said the assumptions built into the IPCC’s modelling also “skew perceptions of what’s possible” in the shift off carbon and fossil fuels. CIEL’s analysis found that the political and economic assumptions baked into the analysis “constrain the way the models represent what mitigation pathways are available and what outcomes are possible,” she told Westervelt. That included a “focus on and assumptions about economic growth that really exclude the possibility of reconceiving growth as something other than the inexorable accumulation of and use of resources. So that possibility is really written out of many of the underlying models.”
Moreover, the IPCC’s approach to calculating the costs of driving down emissions fails to “capture the costs of climate change itself, or adaptation to climate change,” Reisch added. “That bias towards avoiding near-term costs really ends up skewing the models toward reliance on future speculative technologies, rather than near-term available mitigation measures now.”
A more realistic analysis of today’s renewable energy and electrification technologies would show “that there are enormous near-term emission reductions to be made at relatively low cost, some in fact at negative cost, which means the economy benefits from accelerating wind and solar energy deployments,” Muffett said. “You could achieve more reductions from reducing methane emissions from oil and gas. And, of course, you could achieve even more if you stopped producing so much oil and gas in the first place.”
When it comes to CCS and CDR, in contrast to the messaging in the Summary for Policymakers, “the IPCC is saying here in graphic terms, literally, look, this stuff is extraordinarily expensive and it has very limited potential,” he said. Yet “the story that the summary for policymakers appears to tell is one that really puts CCS and CDR at the forefront of solutions.”