Over the last half century, the drive to reduce carbon emissions has taken center stage, affecting politics, the world economy and the direction of technological development. A multitude of competing technologies are available to wean the global economy off its addiction to carbon based fuels, including CCS. It looks to capture and store carbon dioxide produced globally, affecting consumers, carbon emitters, governments and the balance of our ecosystem. This post looks to evaluate the implications of the proliferation of CCS using ethical frameworks to determine if the technology is truly a positive force in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.
CCS – Clear Cut Solution
Drawing on the framework of duty-based ethics, a subsection of the wider Kantian philosophy, the human race has a moral obligation to preserve our planet. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have emitted CO2 into the atmosphere to the detriment of our planet, due to the enhanced greenhouse effect. We therefore have a responsibility to reduce CO2 levels and their associated environmental harm. CCS offers a viable solution to make amends for the polluting of the environment preventing the adverse effects of global warming. CCS technology could satisfy the duty of energy producers and governments to ensure the well-being of consumers and the greater population.
From a utilitarian standpoint, we must follow through on decisions which will benefit the majority and not the minority. Many communities around the world are presently feeling the devastating effects of global warming – rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions to name a few. Continuing current activities without CCS will see a greater risk of exposure to these negative effects, which are set to increase in severity. Cheap and abundant energy sources have underpinned economic growth in developed economies across the world over the last century. CCS implementation will allow for millions to be lifted out of poverty in the same way, as they can rely on the carbon intensive options which currently offer the most readily available sources of energy. Although the use of renewable electricity is rising, it would increase short term energy costs and jeopardize a stable energy network which could stunt the economic growth that benefits those in poverty, denying them access to reliable power that we take for granted.
CCS – Carbon Capture Shutdown
A utilitarian framework can also be used to argue against the implementation of the technology. A recent study states that, in the UK household bills are “families’ biggest worry”, higher than family issues, pressures at work or relationship problems. With over a fifth of the UK population currently in poverty (unable to heat their home, pay rent or buy essentials for their home) lower energy prices rather than environmental issues are a reality that could help more people. The increase in cost due to the separation, transportation and storage of the CO2 is estimated to increase the cost of energy for the consumers by 21-91% meaning the implementation of CCS may not benefit the majority.
The Kantian system of duty ethic focuses on the role of actions and their agreement with moral rules. The conflict with CCS pivots around the universality principle which is described to allow actions based on the premise that an action carried out must be regarded as an action that could become universal law. The basis of CCS is flawed when comparing it with other legislation that has been used to reduce emissions or pollutants in the atmosphere. For example, the prohibition of CFCs (Montreal Protocol) in aerosols or the stringent vehicle emissions standards introduced by the EPA in America triggered technological innovations in the catalytic converter and more environmentally friendly refrigerants, both aiming to eliminate the pollutant. If the principle of safe capture and storage of pollutants was universally implemented it would lead to solutions failing to tackle the root cause of the problem, making it less likely to lead to an effective solution, like those seen in the automobile and chemical industries. In this example we advocate for the focus of resources on zero carbon technologies such as solar or wind energy. In the case of heavy industry, the promotion of energy efficiencies targeting a reduction in energy use, which at the current state of CCS technology would prove far more effective in driving down emissions.
Care ethics focuses on the importance of relationships when developing an ethical standpoint; in this case, the relationship, responsibility and care we have towards future generations. Whilst CCS allows the sustainable burning of fossil fuels, these are resources that are unlikely to be readily available by the end of the century. Money invested in CCS slows the development of alternative energy, meaning the technology may not be ready when the energy transition occurs. In addition, deployment of large scale CCS creates potentially hazardous storage facilities, passing a burden onto future generations. The relationship can only be considered secure if the technology would never lead to future environmental disasters caused by the release of CO2, which is a difficult to assume with the current technological readiness. This could burden society with a future sequestration challenge that no stakeholder is willing to shoulder at present.
An underlying theme running through this discussion is the use of the technology as a vehicle for ‘greenwashing’ the use of fuels like coal. Industries that rely on this are acting with a short sighted viewpoint as the hydrocarbon based model could fall to the wayside in a low carbon energy future.
As well as demonstrating the conflict surrounding CCS, this post shows the weaknesses of the various ethical frameworks. The obscurity of the concept of benefit, or happiness, in the utilitarian framework is quantified by the short term benefit (price) against the long term benefit (reducing pollution) conflict in the article. This is also encountered within the Kantian framework bringing about the question of what is moral. Moral principles of the protection of our planet and our approach to pollutants in general are put against each other forcing us to choose which argument is more powerful.