Clark University scientist challenges government on carbon capture and storage subsidies

January 13, 2014
Jennie Stephens is associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Clark University

Jennie Stephens is associate
professor of Environmental
Science and Policy at Clark

Jennie Stephens, associate professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University, has published an opinion piece recommending that the resources devoted to reducing carbon emissions be redirected to finding alternatives to fossil fuels.

In the Dec. 20, 2013, piece, which was published in the prestigious international journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change and featured on the Post Carbon Institute's site, Stephens challenges the rationale for continued government investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS) programs, noting that implementation of these programs will take as long as devising fossil-fuel alternatives.

"Deep systematic change is needed to alter the disastrous global fossil-fuel trajectory," Stephens writes. "We need to divest from perpetuating a fossil-fuel infrastructure, and invest instead in social and technological changes that will help us prepare to be more resilient in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable future."

Carbon capture and storage has been promoted as a temporary "bridge" strategy to reduce some of the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change while alternatives to fossil fuels are developed.

Stephens argues that the presence of carbon capture and storage technologies is instead enabling a culture of complacency regarding the dangers of continued fossil-fuel use. Stephens points out that carbon capture and storage technologies are not without their own drawbacks. CCS technologies consume energy and are slow to implement. Long-term global policies for managing carbon dioxide storage are not yet in place and are subject to political instability.

She also maintains that not enough thought has been given to the societal impact of maintaining current usage levels of fossil fuels while CCS is in use.

Carbon capture and storage technologies will be difficult to abandon, Stephens acknowledges. Individuals and institutions implementing and promoting these technologies have a vested interest in continuing to do so. Some advocates argue that "CCS is preferable to moving away from fossil fuels because CCS does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles." From a political standpoint, it's difficult to discard technologies that have consumed so much public money, she notes. Countries that rely extensively on coal also prefer to embrace carbon capture and storage technology as being less disruptive to economic growth.

Stephens finds some reasons for hope. The European Union has put a price on carbon dioxide emissions to encourage the use of fossil-fuel alternatives, while proposed carbon dioxide regulations in the United States challenge the assumption that long-term use of coal is sustainable.