A detail of the pilot plant for separating carbon dioxide (CO2) is shown on June 24, 2021 in the Amager Bakke waste incineration plant in Copenhagen.
IDA GULDBAEK ARENTS | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON – Often seen as the beacon of hope in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, carbon capture technology plays an important role in countries’ climate plans as well as in the net-zero strategies of some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.
The issue is controversial, however, as climate researchers, activists and environmentalists argue that carbon capture technology is not a solution.
The world is facing a climate emergency and policymakers and leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver on the promises made under the landmark Paris Agreement. The agreement, which was ratified by nearly 200 countries in 2015, is seen as crucial to averting the worst effects of climate change.
Carbon capture, use and storage – often abbreviated as Carbon Capture Technology or CCUS – refers to a range of technologies used to capture carbon dioxide from high-emitting activities such as power generation or industrial plants that use either fossil fuels or biomass as fuel.
The separated carbon dioxide, which can also be obtained directly from the atmosphere, is compressed and transported by pipeline, ship, train or truck and used in a variety of ways or stored permanently underground.
Proponents of these technologies believe that they can play an important and multifaceted role in achieving global energy and climate goals.
Carroll Muffett, executive director of the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), is not one of them. âThere are a number of reasons why CO2 capture is the wrong climate solution. The first and most basic of these reasons is that it is not necessary, âhe told CNBC over the phone.
“If you look at the history of carbon capture and storage, you see a solution in the quest for a cure for nearly two decades.”
Some CCS and CCUS facilities have been in operation since the 1970s and 1980s when natural gas processing facilities in South Texas began capturing carbon dioxide and delivering the emissions to local oil producers for improved oil production. The first was established in 1972.
It was not until a few years later that CO2 capture technology was investigated for the purpose of climate protection. There are currently 21 major CCUS commercial projects in operation around the world, and plans for at least 40 new commercial facilities have been announced in recent years.
A report released earlier this month by CIEL concluded that these technologies are not only “ineffective, inefficient and unsafe” but are prolonging reliance on the fossil fuel industry and detracting from a much-needed shift to renewable alternatives.
Employees near the CO2 compressor site of the Saudi Aramco-operated Hawiyah Natural Gas Liquids Recovery Plant in Hawiyah, Saudi Arabia on Monday, June 28, 2021. The Hawiyah Natural Gas Liquids Recovery Plant is for processing 4.0 Billion cubic feet of fresh gas designed per day as a pilot project for Carbon Capture Technology (CCUS) to demonstrate the possibility of CO2 capture and emission reduction from such plants.
Maya Siddiqui | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“The unproven scalability of CCS technologies and their prohibitive cost means they cannot play a significant role in the rapid global emissions reduction necessary to limit warming to 1.5 Â° C,” said the CIEL and referred to a central goal of the Paris Agreement, limiting a rise in the earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“Despite the technology’s decades of existence and billions in government subsidies to date, large-scale CCS deployment still faces insurmountable challenges in terms of feasibility, effectiveness and cost,” added the CIEL.
Earlier this year, Global Witness and Friends of the Earth Scotland activists hired climate scientists at the Tyndall Center in Manchester, UK to assess the role of CCS in relation to fossil fuels in the energy system.
The peer-reviewed study found that carbon capture and storage technologies still face numerous barriers to short-term deployment, and even if they could be overcome, the technology would âdeliver too lateâ. Researchers also found that it has been unable to operate zero-emissions, has been a distraction from the rapid growth of renewables, “and has a history of over-promising and under-performing”.
In short, the study states that reliance on CCS is ânot a solutionâ to addressing global climate challenges.
Carbon capture is a rarity in Washington
However, not all of these arguments are convincing. The International Energy Agency, an influential intergovernmental group, says carbon capture technology, while not yet delivering on its promise, can still offer “significant strategic value” in the move to net zero.
“CCUS is a really important part of this technology portfolio that we are considering,” Samantha McCulloch, director of CCUS technology at the IEA, told CNBC on a video call.
The IEA has identified four strategic key roles for the technologies: tackling emissions from energy infrastructure, tackling hard-to-reduce emissions from heavy industry (including cement, steel and chemicals), natural gas-based hydrogen production, and carbon removal.
For these four reasons, McCulloch said it was fair to call CCUS a climate solution.
Currently, CCUS plants around the world have the capacity to capture more than 40 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. The IEA assumes that plans to build many more plants could double the amount of CO2 captured worldwide.
“It’s helping, but not to the extent that we need to move towards a net-zero path,” said McCulloch. “I think the encouraging news is that technology has had very significant momentum over the past few years and this really reflects that without CCUS it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to achieve net zero goals.”
On January 26, 2021, electricity pylons can be seen in front of the cooling towers of the coal-fired power station of the German energy giant RWE in Weisweiler.
INA FASSBENDER | AFP | Getty Images
Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest US oil and gas trade lobby group, believes the future looks bright for carbon capture and storage.
The group noted in a July 2 blog post that CCUS was a rare example of something that “almost everyone” likes in Washington – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike.
What do we do now?
“Frankly, fighting climate change is not the same as trying to bring the fossil fuel industry to its knees,” Bob Ward, director of politics and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, told CNBC by phone.
“If fossil fuel companies can help us hit net zero, why shouldn’t we want them to? I think too many environmental groups have linked their aversion to oil and gas companies to the challenge of climate change to fight.”
When asked why carbon capture and storage systems should be included in countries’ climate plans given the criticism they are receiving, Ward replied, âBecause if we want to achieve net zero by 2050, we have to target every technology on this Throw problem … people who argue that you can start excluding technology because you don’t like it are the ones who, in my opinion, have failed to understand the scale of the challenge we are facing. “
CIEL Muffett rejected this proposal, saying that proponents of carbon capture technologies increasingly rely on these kinds of “all of the above” arguments. “The answer to that is surprisingly simple: we have a decade to cut global emissions in half and we have only a few decades to eliminate them completely,” said Muffett.
âIf a reasonable study of CCS costs huge sums of money, but doesn’t really reduce emissions and further solidify the fossil fuel infrastructure, the question arises: How does this contribute to the solution as opposed to the time, energy and resources away from it the solutions that will work? “