Carbon capture technology could become a major industry, according to authors of a new perspective published on 6 November in Nature (1). In their analysis, Hepburn and colleagues investigate the potential technological and economic prospects of carbon capture and use.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continually cites carbon capture as a necessary technology to help address the imminent threat of climate change and meeting targets of the Paris Agreement. However, thus far, carbon capture has not yet met expectations and question of whether carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies can be scaled quickly enough remain. Moreover, some scientists are concerned that carbon capture technologies could mean less incentive to switch to renewable energy and may even allow fossil fuel companies off the hook.
In a statement, lead author Prof Cameron Hepburn, director of Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford, said “Greenhouse gas removal is essential to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and stabilise the climate,” He adds that “We haven’t reduced our emissions fast enough, so now we also need to start pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Governments and corporations are moving on this, but not quickly enough.”
“The promise of carbon dioxide utilization is that it could act as an incentive for carbon dioxide removal and could reduce emissions by displacing fossil fuels.”
The international team of researchers from the University of California (UCLA), the University of Oxford, and elsewhere examined the potential future scale and cost of 10 different pathways for the use carbon dioxide, including in fuels and chemicals, plastics, building materials, soil management, and forestry. The study is the most comprehensive to date.
They found that on average, about half a gigatonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) could be captured from fossil fuel sources and from the atmosphere annually and used for other purposes like making fuel and plastics. Under the best-case scenario, that could equate to 10 gigatonnes per year that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere — and would cost under $100 per tonne of CO2. However, the authors also conclude that there are substantial barriers to implementation and resource constraints that prevent the realisation of all pathways at the same time.
Feeding the fossil fuel monster
But will carbon capture technologies only lead to the continued use of dirty fuels? Surely, capturing carbon released by burning fossil fuels is better than doing nothing. Or a better approach might be focusing future strategies on self-sustaining renewable energy resources, instead of focusing on fossil fuels.
Another recent study suggested that “it is more valuable, energetically, to invest available energy resources directly into building new renewable energy (and storage) capacity rather than building new fossil-fuel power plants with CCS” (2). And the authors consider carbon capture and technology to be somewhat of a niche that should be seen as a supplementary contributor to the energy system, rather than a critical technology option — or indeed, just another business incentive.
Two sides to every coin
On the other hand, there are undeniable positives of carbon capture and utilisation. For example, using carbon dioxide as a feedstock is a more profitable and environmentally cleaner production process than using conventional hydrocarbons. And carbon capture might be the best options in industries, like aviation, that more difficult to decarbonise.
Perhaps, there is no right or wrong approach. As long as the end goal — mitigating the catastrophic effect of climate change — are kept in mind and not just the potential profit. The climate change problem is complex and further complicated by the competing environmental, political, and business interests. One thing is certain, solutions must come sooner rather than later.
(1) Hepburn, C. et al. The technological and economic prospects for CO2 utilization and removal. Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1681-6
(2) Sgouridis, S. et al. Comparative net energy analysis of renewable electricity and carbon capture and storage. Nature Energy (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41560-019-0365-7