On April 22, 2020 leaders from around the world convened for a digital climate summit hosted by the United States.
Signaling a new commitment to combatting climate change, Former Secretary of State and current Climate Envoy John Kerry emphasized the need for “innovative technologies,” meant to both reduce carbon emissions and “suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
While he did not state it explicitly, the envoy was clearly referring to carbon capture.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS), also known as carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), is the process of capturing carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere and removing them to storage deposits where they can no longer contribute to global warming and climate change.
Interest in CCS has increased as governments and private actors take the challenges of decarbonization more seriously.
Technologies utilized in carbon capture have been around for a while. Interest in CCS has increased as governments and private actors take the challenges of decarbonization more seriously.
As most carbon capture technologies remain untested, there are concerns that the reality will not live up to the hype.
While renewable energy sources such as wind and solar can reduce fossil fuel emissions in electricity production, while electric vehicles (EVs) can reduce emissions from the transportation sector, a huge amount of carbon is emitted from industries such as construction and shipping, where swapping in renewable energy sources is less practical.
The industrial sector contributes 22% of U.S. emissions. If utilized across the entire sector, carbon capture has the potential to reduce emissions by 195 million tons according to recent research.
Beyond these specific uses, carbon capture has broad appeal for a simple reason—it suggests strategies for slowing or reversing climate change exist that don’t require sweeping changes to existing carbon-intensive modes of living. Why worry about emitting carbon when CCS simply sucks it back into the ground?
That might be why CCS is being heavily pushed by companies involved in fossil fuel extraction.
In April, the U.S. major ExxonMobil announced a $100 billion carbon capture plan. The company claimed it could utilize its own experience in capturing carbon at well sites through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques. Apart from this broader project, the company has committed $3 billion over the next five years on projects to lower emissions, including twenty different CCS endeavors.
There are currently 15 direct air capture plants operating in the United States.
Shell and BP both include carbon capture in their net-zero objectives. There are currently 15 direct air capture (DAC) plants operating in the United States, according to the IEA, which together pull 1 million tons of CO2 annually from the atmosphere and bury it underground.
In its current form, carbon capture is both difficult and expensive. The U.S. coal plant at Petra Nova set up for carbon capture shut down in 2021 due to high operating costs. A plant in Mississippi designed to utilize CCS shut down after costs exploded to $7.5 billion.
The amount of carbon captured through CCS is tiny—a mere 40 million tons, out of 36 billion tons worldwide. High costs mean that CCS can’t be scaled effectively.
And that poses a problem for the technology’s boosters who claim it holds the key to combating climate change.
Current rhetoric is focused on the development of technology that can bridge the gap between theory and cost-effective practice.
Thus, current rhetoric is focused on the development of technology that can bridge the gap between theory and cost-effective practice. During April’s climate summit, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $75 million in funding for new carbon capture research. Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and SpaceX and one of the richest people on earth, has offered $100 million to inventors working on CCS technology.
Critics call CCS an expensive distraction from more effective and less speculative measures. The IEA and other organizations argue that carbon emissions are now too high to ignore CCS—that carbon capture, whether it is cost-effective or not, is a crucial part of any global carbon emissions plan, particularly where industrial activities are concerned.
The IEA notes the heavy costs of CCS but argues that it is essential to cutting emissions rapidly. In industrial activities like cement production, carbon capture is “the only scalable solution for reducing emission,” while it is the most cost-effective low-carbon method for reducing emissions in the iron and steel sector.
The Biden administration’s plan to reduce emissions by 50 PERCENT from 2005 levels in the next nine years is the most ambitious American commitment to combating climate change to date. Carbon capture promises to make that goal reachable, provided the technology can be perfected in time.
Right now, U.S. leaders appeal hopeful that technological advances—largely driven by the private sector—will allow the United States to reach its goal. “In terms of innovation, there are great possibilities,” Kerry concluded.