The Other CCS
Laurence Matthews of Feasta The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability
The initials ‘CCS’ usually stand for Carbon Capture and Storage, which was discussed in a post here recently. However, I was with the team in Paris during COP21 promoting the Cap Global Carbon proposal (as described in John Jopling’s blog post here last year); the mechanism embodied in Cap Global Carbon is Cap & Share, and it occurred to us that the name ‘Carbon Cap & Share’ has the same initials, CCS. We wondered, are these two types of CCS complementary or antagonistic? Are they friends or enemies?
Let’s take a look.
The Paris Agreement was hugely symbolic. But if it remains only symbolic, then we’re in deep trouble. We need to implement it quickly, and then some. But it’s clear that cutting carbon emissions won’t happen fast enough. CCS (and for that matter geo-engineering) offer to help.
But there’s a defeatist sleight of hand in that previous paragraph. We may start by agreeing that we need to move fast, but then somehow we slide into accepting that we are unable to just decide to do this. So instead we turn to trying to fix things with technology. But are we really incapable of acting decisively? Are we really limited to moving at a slow, ‘politically feasible’ pace – or is this just a framing of the situation by vested interests?
On first encountering CCS, you might ask the following: prevention being better than cure, why dig up carbon only to re-bury it? If you’re confronted with a flooding bathroom, surely one of the first actions is to turn off the taps? Go for the root cause of the problem and shut it off. Otherwise, we’re into an ‘eating a spider to catch a fly’ series of escalating problems and side effects.
Although the recent post here on CCS stated that ‘a revolution in the global economy is needed’, CCS doesn’t offer one. With CCS, we’re still firmly in the ‘frame’ that takes digging up the fossil fuels for granted. Questioning the digging up falls outside the frame.
Cap & Share, on the other hand, does offer a revolution. Not the kind that overthrows capitalism perhaps, but one that does put capitalism at the service of humankind. We simply insist on the market operating within a set of rules we decide. It’s like our decision to abolish slavery: we said to the market, ‘these are the rules, slavery is out; now go and do your thing within those rules’.
With Cap & Share our ground rule is that the worldwide extraction of fossil fuels must be capped (limited to a certain amount, in accordance with the latest science, that reduces briskly each year towards zero). That’s the ‘Cap’, and we achieve it through an annual global auction of fossil fuel extraction permits. Then we share out the auction income to all adults (that’s the ‘Share’). This is essentially a global Cap & Dividend system (similar to the ‘Fee & Dividend’ idea, advocated by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and others). Cap & Share replaces the need for emissions trading, national emissions limits, and indeed any scrutiny of emissions at all. Everything’s taken care of ‘upstream’, by turning off the taps.
So Cap & Share takes the root cause of most emissions – namely the extraction of fossil fuels – and tackles it head on; CCS simply tries to ‘cope with it’. CCS, like ge-oengineering, is a useful avenue to pursue (and surely, we’re going to need everything we’ve got), but all too often CCS will be used to give cover to those who want to maintain the ‘extraction is sacrosanct’ frame in place.
Where does all this leave us?
With the feeling, perhaps, that Cap & Share and CCS seem to be at odds. But no. Despite this, I would argue that we should see them as partners.
On the one hand, Cap & Share which tackles fossil fuel emissions, can be complemented by CCS, which can tackle the non-fossil CO2 emissions (steel and cement production, say). And conversely, Cap & Share delivers (among other things) a carbon price, which is needed for CCS.
So, do we need CCS? Probably; and CCS needs a carbon price. But are CCS and a carbon price sufficient? No. We need both partners. We need to get serious; to make the carbon price high enough to enforce an effective cap; we need a simple system to do this – and one that also addresses inequality would be good. In other words, we also need Carbon Cap & Share – the other CCS.