A dark art: Field notes on carbon capture and storage policy negotiations at COP17 : Gökçe Günel


I started learning about the controversies surrounding carbon capture and storage (CCS) negotiations during my ethnographic fieldwork on the development of a clean technology and renewable energy sector in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, between September 2010 and June 2011. The environmental consultants I worked with had been preparing a policy submission to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) regarding the inclusion of CCS technology under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).1 My involvement in the project as an anthropologist and an intern allowed me to develop an understanding of how the CDM operated, as well as what CCS technologies comprised. I became further interested in how the CCS issue in the CDM debate would be resolved. In this essay, I trace the unfolding and resolution of the CCS in the CDM negotiations in Durban, South Africa during the COP17. In this way, I hope to present a critique of climate change policy infrastructures, underlining the various incongruities that characterized the negotiations.

CDM is a market-based ‘flexibility mechanism’2 that was initiated under the Kyoto Protocol with the intention of encouraging industrialized countries to invest in greenhouse gas emission reduction programs in developing countries, such as hydropower, wind energy or solar energy projects.3 This way, the environmental consultants explained to me, industrialized countries could meet their own emission reduction commitments, while fostering sustainable development within host countries. Most importantly, they stressed, CDM projects had to satisfy the so-called ‘additionality’ requirement. In other words, the project proponents had to prove that the given project would not have been initiated without the additional CDM incentive from the UNFCCC. As such, the first step for starting a CDM application to the UNFCCC constituted proving how the project would not have happened without this additional push. The environmental consultants that I worked with produced baselines, estimating future greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of the proposed projects. They suggested that they needed to act like attorneys and defend the proposal as if it were a legal case.

These project proposals would then be evaluated by third-party Designated Operational Entities (DOEs) to guarantee that the project would instigate valid emission reductions. If the DOE gave approval to the project, the proposal would be submitted to the CDM Executive Board within the UNFCCC, waiting to be registered. ‘But the registration of hundreds of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects at the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) only shows how successful the consultants that work within these procedures are, rather than proving the success of CDM as a program’, a senior environmental consultant that I worked with told me, thereby questioning the legitimacy of the policy infrastructures that they worked with. Upon registration at the UNFCCC, the project would start to produce carbon credits for the involved entities, based on the supposed emissions reductions gained from its implementation.

In this framework, if China decided to build a solar power station, with technology or expertise from a German company, rather than relying on lower cost energy from coal plants, the reduced carbon emissions attributed to this investment could be credited towards the German company’s emission reduction commitment, set by the Kyoto Protocol. The development of a solar power station would also contribute to sustainable development in China, or at least this is what CDM proposed.4

However, if carbon capture and storage were to be included under the CDM, the environmental policy consultants explained to me, China could build a coal powered plant, provided that it is equipped with CCS technologies, and still receive carbon credits for it. Carbon capture and storage technology, as my interlocutors outlined, operated by obtaining carbon dioxide from large industrial compounds, such as coal plants, carrying it in solid, liquid or gas form to storage sites, and injecting it into geological formations such as deep saline aquifers, unmineable coal seams or maturing oilfields, kilometers below the ground. Accordingly, the inclusion of CCS in the CDM would mean that carbon credits would be issued for carbon dioxide sequestered through future carbon capture and storage projects undertaken in so-called developing countries, providing incentives for further investments in this technology.