What if we could turn back the clock on climate change by simply capturing all the excess greenhouse gases we have emitted since the industrial revolution? It may sound too good to be true, but that technology already exists. It is called carbon capture and storage (CCS) — or carbon capture and sequestration — and has been under development since the 1990s.
Over the course of the years, scientists have figured out different ways of capturing and storing CO2 in the ground, under the sea, and even by using it as an input into different industrial processes. But despite decades of research and development (R&D), CCS remains too expensive to be deployed on a large scale in industry.
Part of the problem has been the fact that, until recently, neither governments nor private companies have been keen to invest the exorbitant amounts of money it takes to develop the technology to the point where it becomes commercially feasible.
On top of that, the large-scale deployment of CCS requires the construction of infrastructure to capture, transport, and store the greenhouse gas; this would have to be similar in scale to the existing oil and gas infrastructure, which took decades to erect and was expensive to build. In other words, the investment required is enormous.
That is to say nothing of the fact that CCS fails to address the root cause of climate change, which is that we produce and consume too much and are overstretching our planetary boundaries. In short, CCS is an end-of-pipe solution that environmentalists detest and that everyone else dislikes because it is costly and its use means that we have failed to mitigate climate change with preventative measures.
A future after all?
But a few recent developments point to the fact that CCS may have a future in the climate change mitigation efforts after all. One year ago, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — operating under the UN, this is the most authoritative scientific body on climate change in the world — published a landmark report in which it concluded that CCS needed to be part of the solution to avoiding catastrophic levels of climate change (warming of 2C or higher). By 2100, the IPCC found, the world would need to remove at least 3.3 billion tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere using CCS.
The report was followed by encouraging policy incentives. In November 2018, the European Commission published its roadmap to carbon neutrality by 2050, which includes CCS alongside six other steps. According to this strategy, CCS is to "compensate for the remaining [after preventative measures are exhausted] greenhouse gas emissions in our economy and create negative emissions."
Across the Atlantic, the U.S. Congress in 2018 increased both the R&D funding for CCS and the tax incentives for the capture and utilization of CO2, according to this August 2018 Congressional report.
More importantly, industrial giants have started to throw their weight behind CCS in earnest. Despite the fact that the technology is by now mature, only 18 CCS projects were operating as of December 2018. However, in January 2019, a promising new project dubbed Northern Lights received its license to operate. Located off the western coast of Norway, the ambitious initiative seeks to build an open-access transport and storage infrastructure for CO2.
Operated by Norway's Equinor (former Statoil), the project also counts oil majors Shell and Total among its partners. And, as of September 2019, it has the participation of seven other industrial giants from different industries, which have committed to creating value chains in CCS in their respective sectors.
Once completed, Northern Lights will be by far the largest such project in the world, being able to capture five million tons of CO2 per year. This is the equivalent of the greenhouse gases emitted by five million passenger vehicles in a year or by six average-sized coal-fired power plants.
Northern LIghts will work as follows. The CO2 captured from different sources will be transported by ship to the Norwegian port of Bergen, where it will be stored in pressurized tanks. The gas will then be pumped offshore through a pipeline into one or several injection wells.
The process won't require an offshore platform, because the wells will be controlled using existing offshore oil and gas infrastructure. The design and management of these facilities will be quite similar to those required for liquid petroleum gas (LPG) sans the fire hazard associated with the latter, according to Equinor.
Why so pricey?
Oil and gas companies have been injecting naturally occurring CO2 in oil wells for decades in order to enhance the energy recovery rates at their wells. However, capturing industrial CO2 emissions is much more complicated and costly.
CCS can be undertaken in virtually every type of facility that emits CO2, but is particularly relevant for highly polluting industries like power generation, cement, chemicals, and petrochemicals.
Regardless of its use case, the technology comprises three main steps: (1) the capture of CO2, followed by (2) its compression and purification, and then by (3) its injection into different types of rock formations.
The first step — capturing CO2 — accounts for the high costs of the technology. That is because CCS involves the addition of several steps to industrial combustion in order to remove CO2 from flue gases.
For coal-based power plants, for instance, the cost of capturing CO2 can be as high as $109 per ton, which is estimated to increase the price of the electricity generated by up to 80%.
What about negative emissions?
While CCS is interesting in and of itself, some of its applications stand out even more because of how impactful they could be if deployed on a large scale. One such application is bioenergy crops with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which consists of the conversion of biomass into energy with the capture and permanent storage of the resulting CO2 emissions.
There are two main ways in which this can be accomplished. The first is the direct combustion of biomass and the capture of the resulting CO2 emissions. The second — which is more commonly used nowadays — way consists in the fermentation of biomass, which results in bioethanol. In the latter case, CO2 emissions need not be captured, but rather can be directly compressed.
BECCS promises not only to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbons by offering an alternative fuel for the generation of electricity, but also to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in the process, thus helping to mitigate climate change. That said, the technology is not without its critics, who have pointed out that using land in order to plant crops for BECCS will put further pressure on biodiversity and crowd out the food crops necessary to feed the growing world population.
At the end of the day, the most effective (and cheapest) way to sequester CO2 is to plant forests and avoid emitting too much of it in the first place. For, while some industrial giants would like to have us believe that "industry can do what plants do" (i.e. capture CO2), the reality is that we as a society will have to pay a hefty price in order to make that happen. And the reason we need industry to do what plants do in the first place is because we weren't capable of curbing our greenhouse gas emissions when we should have.