Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage: Effects on Climate Change

carbon capture

As the Earth gets hotter each year, the issue of climate change rises up the political agenda.1 Questions around capturing carbon dioxide have also started to come up in public debates. What if we captured CO2 at the source before it is released into the atmosphere? Could we stop catastrophic climate change that way? Could such technology solve our problems? Could carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology affect how we see climate change? Let’s explore this issue.

What is carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS)?

The process of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) traps CO2 before it is emitted into the atmosphere. In most cases, the carbon is stored, but companies are increasingly trying to turn it into materials, such as plastics or fuel.2

Factories that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide are the main users of this technology, such as power plants or steel manufacturers.3 It is important to note that CCUS technology does not remove carbon dioxide from the air, but instead captures it at the source. It merely slows down the rate of CO2 emissions being emitted into the air.4

CCUS technology has been touted as one way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are heating up the planet, which disrupts weather patterns and causes climate change.5

Why would carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) be useful or beneficial?

There are certain industries where carbon capture could be extremely useful for slowing down climate change. But, the technology is yet to be reliable or relatively cheap.6 For example, the iron and steel industries are among the largest industrial emitters of carbon dioxide. They alone account for seven to nine per cent of all direct fossil fuel emissions, greater than all of India’s emissions every year.7

“With oil and coal, you know it needs to go away. With combustion vehicles, they need to go away. With steel it’s more complicated”, a commentator told the Financial Times. These industries are carbon-intensive because they need powerful blast furnaces where carbon dioxide is a by-product. Steel companies say decarbonisation would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. What’s more, many are unwilling to spend the money to clean up the industry. This cost may be passed on to consumers.8

Recycling steel would reduce CO2 emissions, but that’s not always viable either. In such industries, it may be cheaper to capture the carbon instead of pushing the industry to quickly decarbonise. Proponents of CCUS technology say it would allow us to reduce emissions without having to rely on expensive new technology. But, there needs to be far more investment into CCUS technology at metal factories, as so far it has been largely ineffective. Some companies are looking into replacing coal with hydrogen to reduce the CO2 emissions at steel furnaces, but the implementation is still far off.9

Criticism of carbon capture

One persistent criticism of CCUS technology is that its proponents make grand claims without being able to deliver. As noted above, even if all the CCUS plants in development were operational, they would be a drop in the ocean. ‘Clean coal’ is one prominent technology that has not lived up to the hype, despite being touted as a potential saviour. The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers money on ‘clean coal’ technology. But, as one whistle-blower told the Guardian, “It was a cool trick – on all of us”.10

Could CCUS technology help us avert climate change by reducing emissions? Its advocates have not yet been able to scale it enough to capture enough carbon dioxide emissions. This means that we must continue to focus on other solutions to climate change, such as phasing out fossil fuels, decarbonising agriculture and planting more trees.

Can carbon capture stop climate change?

This is an important question. If carbon capture technology was cheap and widely applicable, it would help immensely in slowing down global warming. The problem is that the technology is simply not there yet. Furthermore, its proponents in the oil and gas industries are largely unwilling to make the significant investments required to make it viable.11

How much carbon dioxide (CO2) is offset?

There were 51 CCS facilities in development around the world in 2020. But, most are still in production and not fully operational. Even if they were all fully operational, the amount of CO2 captured would only be around 130 million tonnes per year.12 In contrast, the world emits approximately 38 billion tonnes of CO2 every year.13 Clearly, the technology does not have enough scale to make a big enough dent. Furthermore, most CCUS technology is at power plants, but a significant amount of emissions come from the steel or cement industry where CCUS technology isn’t well implemented.

In other words, we simply cannot capture enough carbon dioxide from factories to rely on the technology to offer a fix for climate change. It should not be used as an excuse to avoid decarbonisation.14

Sources

  1. NW, 1615 L.S., Suite 800Washington and Inquiries, D. 20036USA202-419-4300 | M.-8.-8. | F.-4.-4. | M. (n.d.). U.S. concern about climate change is rising, but mainly among Democrats. [online] Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/16/u-s-concern-about-climate-change-is-rising-but-mainly-among-democrats/.
  2. IEA. (n.d.). Carbon capture, utilisation and storage – Fuels & Technologies. [online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/fuels-and-technologies/carbon-capture-utilisation-and-storage.
  3. IEA. (n.d.). CCUS technology innovation – CCUS in Clean Energy Transitions – Analysis. [online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/reports/ccus-in-clean-energy-transitions/ccus-technology-innovation [Accessed 23 Feb. 2021].
  4. American University. (n.d.). Explaining Carbon Removal. [online] Available at: https://www.american.edu/sis/centers/carbon-removal/explaining-carbon-removal.cfm [Accessed 23 Feb. 2021].
  5. NASA (2019). What is the greenhouse effect? – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/19/what-is-the-greenhouse-effect/.
  6. IEA. (n.d.). Is carbon capture too expensive? – Analysis. [online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/commentaries/is-carbon-capture-too-expensive [Accessed 23 Feb. 2021].
  7. “Green steel”: the race to clean up one of the world’s dirtiest industries. (2021). The Financial Times. [online] 15 Feb. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/46d4727c-761d-43ee-8084-ee46edba491a [Accessed 17 Feb. 2021].
  8. “Green steel”: the race to clean up one of the world’s dirtiest industries. (2021). The Financial Times. [online] 15 Feb. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/46d4727c-761d-43ee-8084-ee46edba491a [Accessed 17 Feb. 2021].
  9. “Green steel”: the race to clean up one of the world’s dirtiest industries. (2021). The Financial Times. [online] 15 Feb. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/46d4727c-761d-43ee-8084-ee46edba491a [Accessed 17 Feb. 2021].
  10. Kelly, S. (2018). How America’s clean coal dream unravelled. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/02/clean-coal-america-kemper-power-plant.
  11. IEA. (n.d.). CCUS in Clean Energy Transitions – Analysis. [online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/reports/ccus-in-clean-energy-transitions.
  12. www.nationalgrid.com. (n.d.). What is Carbon Capture and Storage? | National Grid Group. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgrid.com/stories/energy-explained/what-is-ccs-how-does-it-work.
  13. Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2017). CO2 and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions. [online] Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
  14. The Parliament Magazine. (2020). CCS: why it can only be a transition technology. [online] Available at: https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/news/article/ccs-why-it-can-only-be-a-transition-technology [Accessed 23 Feb. 2021].