Carbon Capture and Storage - our only hope of saving the climate?

By Madeleine Woods

The third in a series of articles titled 'the voice of young people', from the opinion formers of the future. 

On 11th January 2021 HRH The Prince of Wales announced a Sustainable Markets Initiative, the Terra Carta, which emphasises the importance of developing innovative technological solutions to our emissions crisis, in particular Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). CCS is widely seen as playing a vital role in cutting global emissions and ensuring that the 2015 Paris Accords’ goal of limiting global warming by 2100 to 1.5 - 2oC above pre-industrial levels is met. However, the wide-scale deployment of CCS may create problems that would negatively impact the environment and society, such as exacerbating global food insecurity. It will also be very expensive.

CCS is the process by which CO2 is captured, transported and stored in underground geological reservoirs resulting in emissions reductions and possibly net negative carbon emissions. The technology has been developed in two main ways. 

• Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS): Industrial processes, such as liquid sorbents, capture and store CO2 directly from the atmosphere. DACCS may be effectively used in sectors that are difficult to electrify. 

• Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): Food crops, which have absorbed CO2 during photosynthesis, are burnt for bioenergy to provide an alternative energy supply to fossil fuels. The waste CO2 is captured and stored. 

CCS is a potential climate change mitigation strategy for the UK due to the large volumes of storage space in the saline aquifers and the depleted oil and gas reservoirs in the North Sea. This storage potential has been estimated at 78 GtCO2, which is more than enough to help the UK meet its Paris Agreement pledge to reduce 600 to 1000 MtCO2 yr-1 by 2050.

However, CCS is in the demonstration phases of development with only a handful of small-scale plants worldwide and is, therefore, untested at scale and very expensive. For example, the cost of sequestering a ton of carbon through tree planting is approximately $100, but through DACCS most estimates are between $300-1000. To make this technology economically viable, it needs to appeal more to investors, and this can be achieved in two main ways: [1] the government could subsidise the technology; [2] the price of releasing carbon emissions could be made more expensive. In Europe the current carbon price is about  $30-40/tCO2 but to make CCS economically viable a carbon price of $100/tCO2 is needed. However, there are currently no policies in place in the UK to aid the development of CCS, and so, it is currently not economically feasible to deploy CCS on a large scale to combat the climate crisis.

There are also concerns that a large-scale deployment of CCS may negatively impact society. BECCS is a highly land intensive technology; to meet the Paris Agreement’s target, it has been projected in a recent study that 5.1–16% of the Earth’s land area would be required to grow crops for BECCS. Such a high land usage would result in a trade-off between energy crops and agriculture, with repercussions for food security. This is problematic when world hunger has been rising since 2015 and a 2018 UN study estimated that 820 million people were food insecure. On the positive side, it would stimulate the bioeconomy with benefits for the rural economy in the developed world.

Lastly, green organisations, such as Friends of the Earth and Global Witness, argue that CCS would enable the continued use of fossil fuels and disincentivise the development of renewable energies. CCS may only push back the environmental crisis without fixing it, unethically leaving the problem for future generations. What happens when fossil fuels run out or all the geological storage facilities are full? 

To address the challenge of climate change “Plan A” should undoubtedly be to rapidly decarbonise our economy and invest in renewable energies. Nevertheless, I think that it is time to subsidise and invest money, time, and innovation into “Plan B” – utilising negative emissions technologies, such as CCS.  International organisations, governments, and businesses have dragged their heels on climate change mitigation and so our window of opportunity to keep warming to less than 2 degrees is closing fast. In addition, in my opinion, the consequences of not tackling the emissions crisis outweigh the risks of CCS; for example, most forecasts indicate that climate change will result in a decline in crop yields and increased food insecurity independent of the deployment of CCS. Also, it will take time to deploy CCS at scale and during this period many of CCS’ issues could be tackled and solved. For instance, preliminary studies have demonstrated that marine algae can be successfully used in BECCS, offering a potential solution to land use issues. Overall, CCS and other negative emissions technologies are sure to be a major topic of discussion at the Paris Agreement’s Conference of the Parties in Glasgow later this year.

Published: 1 February 21

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