Is carbon capture and storage a complete waste of time and effort?

14 Jun 2018

Carbon capture and its storage underground (CCS) is one of the solutions considered to keep global warming below 2°C by the end of the century.

Today, this decarbonisation method is primarily used in oil extraction activities, where its real climate benefit is doubtful. Yet, for other big emitting industries, such as steel, cement and glass production, which still have no other credible alternatives for total decarbonisation, CCS is seen as the ultimate solution.

Although the process has faced multiple setbacks and resounding failures in recent years, the renewed interest in it that we have seen lately prompts us to question the true role it plays in combating climate change.

Carbon capture and storage: vital in achieving climate goals or a last futile effort by a fossil fuel industry that is ultimately doomed by the climate imperative?

According to the IPCC[1], by mid-century, we must be capable of storing more carbon than we emit if we are to achieve the climate goal. We must therefore find ways to store carbon via natural sinks such as forests or via technical solutions like CCS.

How post-combustion carbon capture works

how-post-combustion-carbon-capture-works

Source: https://gereports.ca/carbon-capture-global-warming-game-changer/#

Fossil fuels rank high in the global energy mix and their use makes up the vast bulk of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by mankind. These two findings make CCS particularly attractive, as it would allow us to continue using fossil fuels while eliminating their GHG emissions by storing them in deep geological formations.

The International Energy Agency (IEA)[2] therefore gives it a central role in its 2°C scenario, projecting a 12% contribution to the cumulative carbon emission reductions needed by 2050. This is also why countries heavily dependent on coal for energy, such as China, India and Japan, include CCS in their intended national contributions to combating climate change[3].

 

Is carbon capture and storage a worthwhile solution?

However, extensive development of CCS raises many questions concerning its climate and environmental impacts, its economic rationale, its feasibility and therefore, ultimately, whether or not it is actually worthwhile.

Today, the main CCS projects are to be found in the oil industry. There, the aim is to reduce direct emissions from refineries or from gas and hydrogen production facilities. The captured CO2 is essentially re-injected into oil fields to increase production using the Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) technique.

This is the case for 73% of global CCS projects[4]. These projects will therefore contribute to increasing fossil fuel production, and emissions from fossil fuel consumption will rise. The emissions induced by the production increase made possible by CCS will largely outweigh the emissions that are captured. At present, CCS is therefore a net contributor to global warming.

Carbon capture storage processes: what’s the difference?

carbon-capture-storage-processes

Source: https://gereports.ca/carbon-capture-global-warming-game-changer/#

In addition, separating, purifying and storing CO2 is an extremely intensive process in terms of energy and water usage. Energy accounts for one-third of a CCS project’s total costs. The water withdrawals and consumption of a power plant equipped with CCS can be twice as high as a conventional plant[5]. Yet climate change will adversely impact water as a resource and make it scarcer, thereby heightening competition for its use. In this context, any plan to develop an even more water-intensive and less energy-efficient production facility is a not a smart idea.

 

A technology worth the effort?

CCS is also a costly technology that has failed to find a viable economic model beyond its use in the oil projects.

The Kemper project in the US was supposed to be the world’s largest coal-fired CCS power plant, capturing and storing more than three million tons of CO2 a year. Annoyed by the USD 7.5 billion gobbled up by the project, the years of delay and the uncertainties surrounding its future profitability, Mississippi regulators called on the utility owner, Southern Co., in June 2017 to suspend its project and study the possibility of conversion to a conventional gas-fired plant[6].

The availability of places to store carbon dioxide, but above all the suitability of the location of such places in relation to where most emissions occur is another limit.

Most CO2 emissions come from China, the US and Europe, whereas the majority of deep geological formations best suited for storing carbon dioxide are in the Middle East and North Africa[7]. On top of the cost issues surrounding long-distance carbon transport to appropriate storage locations, there is also the question of its technical feasibility.

Finally, CCS is not a prerequisite to achieving massive decarbonisation.

Many nations and all the European countries in particular, make no reference to CCS in their intended contributions to climate goals. In its Mid-Century Strategy (MCS)[8], the United States – the world’s second-biggest GHG emitter – believes it can reduce the nation’s GHG emissions by 80% in 2050 compared to the 2005 level, without using CCS.

 

Deployment has stalled

All these limits no doubt explain why CCS deployment has currently stalled. Investments and regulatory support are on the decline. The number of CCS projects under construction worldwide is in free-fall and not a single new project was announced in 2016.

The main prospective users of CCS, i.e. power producers and industrial manufacturers of steel, chemicals and cement, which account for over 80% of total emissions captured by CCS in the IEA’s scenario, are totally absent from the debate.

Of the 22 projects in operation or under construction, only three are intended for power generation[9]. The others focus almost exclusively on applications in the oil industry.

In the latest version of its 2°C scenario, the IEA had to considerably revise down the electrical generation power capacities that would be equipped with CCS by 2040, halving them compared to the previous version of the scenario issued only a year earlier. Even the US administration, which is keen to save the coal industry by using CCS to make it ‘clean’, has slashed the Department of Energy’s R&D budget for its development by 85%.

 

Carbon capture and storage at an impasse

CCS has clearly reached an impasse. The cost and environmental impacts of this decarbonisation technique have raised doubts about it. The use of CCS no longer seems appropriate for fossil fuel production, particularly coal-fired power plants. Despite some continuing support, the notion of ‘clean’ carbon is an oxymoron and confirms the opinion of BNP Paribas AM’s Sustainability Centre that there is no room for coal in an energy mix compatible with the Paris Agreement goal. CCS should be reserved for industrial applications such as steel, cement or chemical production, which are yet to find credible alternatives to achieve carbon neutrality.


 

[1] 2015, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers

[2] International Energy Agency, Energy Technology Perspectives 2016

[3] UNFCCC, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), October 2015 – http://unfccc.int/files/adaptation/application/pdf/all__parties_indc.pdf

[4] OECD/IEA 2016, 20 years of carbon capture and storage, table 1.1 Large-scale CCS projects in operation or under construction and Global CCS Institute

[5] IEA, WEO 2016, Water energy nexus

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-21/a-first-of-its-kind-clean-coal-plant-may-end-up-burning-no-coal

[7] SBC Energy Institute January 2013, Bringing Carbon Capture and Storage to Market Factbook version based on Advanced Resources International, 2011 http://hub.globalccsinstitute.com/sites/default/files/publications/56466/factbook-bringing-carbon-capture-storage-market.pdf

[8] http://unfccc.int/files/focus/long-term_strategies/application/pdf/mid_century_strategy_report-final_red.pdf, November 2016

[9] OECD/IEA 2016, 20 years of carbon capture and storage, table 1.1 Large-scale CCS projects in operation or under construction and Global CCS Institute