Mopping up the carbon debt – a compliance role for carbon capture and storage

For traditionalists and Luddites, Carbon Capture and Storage has something fishy about it. It’s a bit too popular with the Americans and the Oil Companies. That’s enough to put us on our guard.

“Hey. Who’s the fat guy over there, eating a Big Mac?”
“Oh, that’s Earl.”
“What’s Earl doing?”
“He’s involved in our CCS project.”
“You mean, he’s the living carbon sink?”
“No. He’s sitting on the cork.”

And we are afraid that if Earl falls off the cork, then the stuff will all shoot out again and it will be back to square one.

Scientists will tell us that it’s not quite like that: “Believe me, it is quite safe.” It’s usually the government’s chief scientist who tells us this, so that’s all right.

Still, common sense is nagging away at the back of our minds. We’ve heard scientists assure us about lots of things in the past, and we don’t know whose side they are on. A white coat is deceptively neutral, not like the new Chelsea away kit. If scientists had to wear coats in the colour of their team, that might make it easier. But that is another story.

If the scientists don’t convince us about CCS, the politicians will. They quickly rule out common sense. Politics hates common sense because it is hard to formulate in rules and cannot be quantified. It demands judgment and independence of mind. So they tell us: “Ho ho, common sense was the guy who said how can a big metal bird carry people from London to New York. Common sense was the clever chap who said how can you have a little box where you can see things happening hundreds of miles away? In a few years time you won’t be able to imagine how you could life without CCS. And in the end you will get it whether you want it or not.”

CCS looks like making it too easy. It’s another get-us-off-the-hook technology, like dieting pills which let you eat as much as you want and still stay skinny. You just know that nature will get her own back in the end. It always turns out that those pills give you heart attacks or haemorrhages.

So here is a suggestion for a role for CCS.

Compliance with the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol needs to have two parallel accounts: Current Account and Carbon Debt Account. Every country should have a Current Account of AAUs – rights to emit. And it would work just like the first commitment period – there is a target level of annual emissions from normal operations, and you have to meet it.

The Carbon Debt Account is for industrialised countries and those which have destroyed a lot of forest. Its purpose is to keep account of the historical carbon debt – all the surplus CO2 which is up there already. So, for the sake of argument (of which there will be much), the USA’s CDA would start will a balance of something like 200 billion HCDUs (Historical Carbon Debt Units – obligations to sequester). Obviously we will need a lot of goodwill to establish an HCDU figure for everyone. Once in place, targets would be agreed for reduce the balance on the CDA by redemption of emission reduction credits.

CDA Redemption is about putting stuff back where it belongs and righting past wrongs. So for meeting CDA reduction targets, one could use CCS. In the same way, forestry should be a mainstay of CDA Redemption. CDA Redemption sucks carbon out of the sky and locks it up in the ground in mineral or, preferably, organic form. And then you get Earl to sit tight.

Current Account obligations are about our adjusting our lifestyle to a sustainable level of emissions, and so should be met through sustainable improvements in our lifestyle, not one-off adjustments to the terrestrial carbon store: renewable fuel, energy efficiency, energy avoidance, taking it easy, enjoying some modest economic decline, and so on.

The science of this approach might not be rock solid. But matching of the type of reduction (one-off or sustainable) with the purpose of that reduction (debt reduction or current account) is a sensible way to give compliance role to the different forms of reduction without too much compromise on environmental integrity.

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