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Progress on carbon (CO2) capture

Are we making enough progress on carbon capture? How do we tackle the controversies and what are the possible outcomes of the technique?

Photography: Steve Buissinne, Source: pixabay.com

The use of carbon capture as a means of tackling global climate change has always been somewhat controversial.

Following early enthusiasm and some ambitious government policies, a number of carbon capture and storage (CCS) programmes around the world have been cancelled due to spiralling costs and doubts about their effectiveness.

Those that oppose it argue that, without an astronomically high carbon price, the cost of applying CCS to coal fired power stations makes the energy generated too expensive, and that it would be cheaper and simpler to leave the coal in the ground and develop more renewable power instead.

So is carbon capture a distraction from the serious business of reducing fossil fuel use and cutting carbon emissions or a promising technology that will help keep the global rise in temperature below 2 degrees Celsius (2C), as set in the Paris agreement?

Why is it important to know about carbon capture?

Although many of the proposed technologies are unproven at scale, carbon capture projects form a significant part of most climate models.

Almost all of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pathways designed to reach the targets in the Paris agreement rely on negative emissions technologies (NETs) in the latter half of this century.

A study published in Nature Climate Change[i] in early 2017 reported that, whilst the growth of renewables including wind, solar, biomass and hydro were broadly on track to meet the 2C target, CCS had not kept pace.

The report’s authors concluded that, “There is a clear divergence between current trends and the scenarios. Most scenarios require thousands of CCS facilities by 2030, but there are only tens currently proposed”.

If the shortfall of CCS schemes continues, alternative ways must be found to meet the 2C target — by deploying additional renewables more quickly, for example — or we must accept that 2C is unachievable.

Are there any good news about CCS?

A 2017 report[ii] from the Global CCS Institute (GCCSI) identified a number of large-scale CCS facilities (with annual CO2 capture capacity of 400,000 tonnes or more) in operation around the world. Currently, the USA leads the way with nine; Canada has three and Norway two, while Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the UAE each have one.

Between them, these 17 CCS facilities capture more than 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Other countries also have projects in development or under construction, including China, which has eight such schemes in the pipeline.

The GCCSI describes China, Canada and Australia as the current leaders in commissioning large-scale CCS developments, while China and Japan are also developing novel technologies and smaller-scale CCS projects.

In Norway, meanwhile, the government aims to be a world leader in CCS, and has made it a key pillar of the country’s industrial strategy. All the major political parties in Norway support investment in CCS development, ensuring that carbon capture technology will remain on the agenda irrespective of which party is in power.

This is reflected in the number of companies that have deployed CCS technology across various industry sectors in Norway, including Fortum (waste-to-energy plant), Norcem (cement industry), Yara (chemical processing), Statoil and Total (oil and gas industry).

So, although the global deployment of CCS is very slow and currently way behind target, it is already part of ‘business as usual’ in some areas. Furthermore, other countries may be ready to seize the opportunity to deploy CCS when the time and price are right.

The CCS readiness index

The GCCSI also authored a 2016 report[iii] examining the inherent level of interest, laws and regulations, policy landscape and storage site availability of 30 countries, to determine their state of readiness to progress towards large-scale CCS deployment.

This report concluded that the six highest-scoring nations, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and the USA, “have a long-term, strategic approach to CCS as a low emission technology for its climate change emission reduction goals, [and] score high across the policy, legal and storage indicators”.

Other nations with high carbon emissions, including China, Germany, Japan, India, Korea and Russia, scored well in terms of interest in CCS, but not across all indicators.

Photography: Emilian Robert Vicol, Source: pixabay.com

Carbon capture and use technologies proving popular

Even if deployed quickly and at scale, current CCS technology is best suited to capturing CO2 from large industrial and manufacturing facilities and power stations, so how can it address emissions from other sources?

One of the key requirements of CCS is storage for the captured carbon dioxide, and particularly geological and technical availability of suitable locations. The cost of transporting it over potentially long distances through pipelines or by ship is also important.

Finding a use for the captured gas instead is an alternative approach currently being tested, leading to these technologies as a whole now being referred to as carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS).

Some industry sectors already use carbon dioxide, including beer and fizzy drinks manufacturers, food packaging companies and abattoirs; however, demand is tiny compared with the scale of the problem and, in any case, the gas used in these processes is quickly released back into the atmosphere after use.

A Swiss company, Climeworks, was the first in the world to begin commercially removing CO2 from the air when it opened its direct-air capture facility near Zurich in 2017. A bank of 18 carbon dioxide collectors installed on the roof of a refuse incineration plant is powered by waste heat from the incinerator.

At present, the captured gas is compressed and turned into crop fertiliser for use in greenhouses at a rate of 900 tonnes a year. This means there is no ‘negative emissions’ effect, since the CO2 is not effectively locked away; however, the company says that the process can be used for carbon sequestration and is also compatible with underground storage.

Climeworks calculates that 250,000 similar direct-air capture plants would have to be built in order to remove the equivalent of 1 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions. They expect the operating costs of such plants will be up to $400 per tonne of captured carbon dioxide.

Carbon Engineering, a company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates amongst others, has also built a working direct-air capture prototype that has been successfully extracting around a tonne of CO2 from the air every day for a year.

The company aims to combine the carbon dioxide captured from the air with hydrogen split from water to make a clean, synthetic fuel. Massive banks of extractor fans located outside cities on non-agricultural land would supply the CO2 for fuel synthesis, powered by low-carbon electricity from solar panels.

Meanwhile, Australian company Mineral Carbonation International has launched a pilot project that captures carbon dioxide and stores it in building materials. The process bonds CO2 with crushed rock, converting it into solid carbonates and silica by-products, which can then be used to manufacture ‘green’ building products such as plasterboard and concrete.

Most recently, the first carbon capture demonstrator plant in the UK opened in March 2018 in Runcorn, Cheshire. Econic Technologies’ pioneering catalyst technology converts carbon dioxide into polyol compounds that can be used to manufacture products as diverse as bedding, footwear and vehicles.

Reasons for optimism?

It’s easy to be pessimistic about CCS and the likelihood of it helping to solve our climate woes at this moment in time, given the lack of large-scale deployment and the global failure to keep pace with the IPCC models.

Contrary to much scientific and political scepticism, however, it does appear that the technology can work and has been embraced by at least some big businesses and countries.

A key player in Norway’s CCS developments, Technology Centre Mongstad (TCM), is one of the world’s largest and most advanced CCS testing centres, assisting vendors, academics and research establishments in testing their technologies. It is also part of the International Test Centre Network, helping to collaborate and share knowledge internationally.

TCM reports that the costs of CCS have reduced by 50 per cent during its five years of operation, according to vendors.

With stricter climate change targets and a higher price for carbon in the future, it’s possible that CCUS will have a much greater part to play in achieving the 2 degree Celsius goal (the Paris Agreement) after all.

Criticism to Carbon Capture

There are numerous ways to look at carbon capture. Below, we try to sum up the most commonly used criticisms of the CCS technique.

  1. One of the most common counterarguments is that the CCS technique is that there are no current large scale setups that can anyway near su suck up and sequence humanity’s huge emissions. Still it’s built into the climate models that the IPCC use.
    To put this in context, the Paris agreement and all other policies and related agendas that support it, take for granted a currently non-existing technique is in large scale global use within 20 years from today.
  2. As of today, the CCS technique as defined as manmade techniques, processes, is very costly, small-scale and demand a great deal of energy to operate.
  3. Another argument is that the protagonist may, consciously or otherwise, run errands for the fossil lobby or for those in favour of a Business As Usual (BAU) lifestyle.

The organisation ProCon offers a good read here for those interested in more a fuller picture of the pros and cons of the CCS technique.

We have moved into unknown territory

Recent years events have made it’s obvious that we are approaching tipping-points in the climate systems. The only way forward if we are to avoid that the climate crisis gets out of control is a two-tied approach:

  1. The GHG emissions must decrease by around 8–10 per cent yearly
  2. We must support the creation of large scale effective carbon capture techniques.

Both are needed, none is enough by itself.

Final words

Can technical advances, block-chain technology, internet of Things (IoT) and a low-carbon economy lead the way? Can the Green Climate Fund play an important role?

Carbon emissions are to be considered “carbon damage” done in one place that can theoretically and technically be evened out by “carbon repair” in another. But we have to make sure one tonne in one place (emission or harm) is equal to a tonne in the other (offset or repair).

To sum things up, like most things in life, carbon capture is both a part of the problem and a part of the solution. We are not likely to reach anywhere near safe ground and certainly not meet our commitmens in the Paris Agreement without some sort of CCS technique in place (soon). We must minimise our carbon emissions, #KeepItInTheGound (carbon), #Divest and carry out smart and effective carbon offset for the emissions from our total carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Both are needed, none is enough by itself.

The world is an interlinked place. Take care of it like it means the world. Because it does. — Mårten Thorslund, Chief Marketing Officer, WeDontHaveTime.org

[i] https://www.natre.com/articles/nclimate3202

[ii] http://www.globalccsinstitute.com/sites/www.globalccsinstitute.com/files/uploads/global-status/1-0_4529_CCS_Global_Status_Book_layout-WAW_spreads.pdf

[iii] http://hub.globalccsinstitute.com/sites/default/files/publications/201753/consoli-et-al-207-ccs-readiness-index.pdf

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