As global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue to rise, it’s becoming clear that we need an increased focus on tackling the emissions of tomorrow through complementary Technology-based Solutions (TBS). To meet climate goals set forth by the Paris Agreement, we must first reduce emissions. One contested solution that is gaining traction, specifically for reducing unavoidable emissions, is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). However, emissions reduction will not be enough. We will also need carbon dioxide removal solutions such as Direct Air Capture (DAC) to remove historic and residual CO2 emissions. Another solution, which has been in use for centuries but is now seeing a renaissance, is Wooden Buildings. Ramping up TBS is a key part of the global drive to get to Net Zero emissions.
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Is Carbon Capture and Storage a game changer?
CCS refers to a raft of climate mitigation technologies designed to capture CO2 directly from the point source. The captured carbon is either stored permanently underground or is utilised for other purposes such as enhanced oil recovery or producing synthetic fuels. “It will take decades before we can completely decarbonise our energy systems. We need to mitigate various technological, financial and social risks attached to the energy transition before we can move away from fossils. Until then, we will continue to emit carbon. Therefore, the only pragmatic way to reach the Net Zero target is through large-scale capture, utilisation and, above all, long-term storage of CO2,” said Henrik Utvik, Founder & President & CTO at Aqualung Carbon Capture.
Although CCS has been around for decades, it has never really taken off. In its recent report, however, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that CCS has a key role to play in limiting global temperature rise to under 2°C, the main goal of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, as per the sustainable development scenario of the International Energy Agency, CCS has the potential to meet around 15% of the cumulative emissions reductions needed to meet the Net Zero target by 2050.
While speaking to Broadpeak, Lionel Dubois, Senior Researcher at the University of Mons highlighted the significance of CCS in the following words: “The best-captured carbon is the one we have not emitted. However, in many cases, we cannot avoid some emissions for instance in the cement or aviation industry. We will continue to emit carbon in these hard-to-abate sectors. Carbon capture from point sources is part of the solution to reduce these unavoidable emissions. It is not a panacea for all climate solutions but it is and will remain a key component of our climate strategies.”
CCS has the potential to deliver deep decarbonisation in hard-to-abate sectors by capturing more than 90% of CO2 emissions from power plants and industrial facilities. In industries where renewables and alternative fuels fail to meet the energy demand, fossil fuels will remain the dominant source of energy production. Proponents argue that failure to set up ways to remove and store carbon emitted by these sectors would make it challenging to hold net emissions to below zero by 2050. Several reports, including from the Energy Transition Commission conclude that achieving net-zero emissions in hard-to-abate industries like cement, iron, and steel, may be impossible without CCS.
Moreover, without CCS, the cost of meeting global climate goals will increase by almost 140%, according to estimates by the IPCC. While the micro-level cost of CCS might appear expensive (more than USD 100 per ton of CO2), at the macro level, achieving the Net Zero target without CCS would be exceedingly difficult and costly. In systems where CO2 removal is an inherent part of the production process, such as in natural gas processing, the cost of CCS can be substantially lowered. Moreover, around 450 million tons of CO2 can be captured and stored with a commercial incentive of as low as USD 40 per tonne of CO2, providing a solid foundation for scaling up CCS deployment.
Globally, there is growing traction for CCS. Plans for more than 30 new integrated carbon capture facilities have been announced since 2017, mostly in oil and gas-producing countries such as the United States, Australia, China, and the Middle East. Stronger climate targets and investment incentives are injecting new life into CCS. In the US, for instance, Section 45Q of the US Internal Revenue Code provides a tax credit for carbon storage. The 2022 changes to 45Q tax credits provide up to USD 85 per tonne of CO2 permanently stored and USD 60 per tonne of CO2 used for enhanced oil recovery or other industrial uses of CO2.
Critics uphold that the carbon capture is a mirage
While governments around the world are pouring huge sums of public money into CCS, many experts believe that it is highly dangerous to rely on CCS for carbon reduction. One major opposition is based on the inability of CCS to deliver on its promises. According to a report by Tyndall Centre, CCS technology has not lived up to its promises. Instead of capturing up to 90% of the carbon from any industrial process, rates have been as low as 65%. For example, one of Canada’s flagship projects, Boundary Dam 3, initially promised a capture rate of 90% but it has never met this goal. By end of 2021, the facility captured roughly 44% of Boundary Dam’s emissions, raising red flags regarding the viability of the technology and federal investment in it.
Moreover, CCS is still highly expensive and not commercially viable without government subsidies. It costs hundreds of dollars and a massive amount of energy to remove a single ton of carbon using CCS. However, governments across the globe are investing heavily in CCS projects. “A major chunk of the public money is being diverted into CCS projects that are used for oil and gas operations. This is a terrible use of public resources and distracts from investing in proven climate solutions, like renewables. Canada, for instance, has a 50% tax credit for CCS and only a 30% tax credit for renewables. Why CCS is getting more money than renewables? This is what needs to be assessed and talked about more openly in our public policy debates,” highlighted Julia Levin, Associate Director of National Climate at Environmental Defence.
Some experts also argue that CCS technologies allow carbon emitters to continue polluting the environment. A report published by CIEL concluded that CCS technologies prolong reliance on the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, about 80% of global captured carbon to date has been used for enhanced oil recovery. Some 500 climate activist organizations in Canada and the USA, in an open letter, opposed government support for CCS, arguing that it is a “false solution” that allows companies to greenwash their image by permitting a business-as-usual approach. “CCS is life support for the fossil fuel industry – a fairy tale solution that distracts from real climate solutions needed for a rapid transformation away from fossil fuels to prevent major climate catastrophes,” stressed Levin.
Critics also point out that TBS are not yet at the scale needed to meet climate goals, emphasising the importance of proven Nature-based Solutions (NBS). They acknowledge the importance of TBS but also highlight that these solutions have a long way to go before they can start delivering on their promises. “NBS have demonstrated to be effective in not only sequestering carbon, but also in promoting sustainable communities and livelihoods. CCS technologies, on the other hand, are not yet fully developed. They lack scalability and are highly costly. Nonetheless, given the pressing nature of the climate crisis, an increased implementation of both solutions is necessary,” emphasized, Arthur Vanderschooten, Vice President and Co-founder of Imperative Global.
What is the way forward from a policy perspective?
The commercial deployment of CCS will highly depend on robust cost-reduction strategies and regulatory policies. To offset the risk of extending the life of fossil fuel industries, stringent monitoring and regulatory mechanisms will need to be developed to ensure that the stored carbon is not used to extract more fossil fuel.
In the short to medium term, fossil fuel CCS may be used for enhanced oil recovery but that should not replace CO2 reduction actions to transition to renewables as that defeats the purpose of the technology. Chris Minter, Sustainable Supply Chain Lead at Zurich Insurance, explained, “Even if carbon removal or capture is attached to fossil fuel that’s not necessarily a bad thing given that it is accompanied by a commitment to transition to green fuel. However, if it is done with the sole purpose of distracting and extending the life of fossil fuel companies then that will not be sustainable in long term.”
Whether CCS is a distraction or a true climate solution might be debatable, but what is clear is that we need all solutions on the table to meet our climate goals. It is important to assess the potential and implications of TBS and divert adequate levels public funding to them. We also need to do more research and work towards improving the efficiency and cost of these technologies. Well-designed policy, cost-reduction measures, and technological innovation are key to improving carbon capture deployment rates. As Dubois put it: “We can learn only if we do. If we wait and do nothing, we will not be able to solve the climate crisis. We need to do more tests and experiments to develop economically viable and effective technologies.”