Climate change is rattling the world. 2018 was the worst year to date in terms of emissions.

Scientists predict a gloomy future: one of misery, destruction and catastrophe. But the climate debate remains highly polarized. The world is too busy picking winners and losers and pitting technologies against each other. We are losing sight of what needs to be done: solving our CO2 problem.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has to play an important part in getting this job done. CCS is a set of technologies that prevents CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere and stores them safely underground in dedicated geological storage, and it can play a key role in reducing emissions and achieving global climate targets. This technology is also an enabler of negative emissions, through extracting CO2 from the atmosphere.

Often decried as an expensive and unproven fig-leaf for the fossil fuel industry, the reality - that we cannot combat climate change without CCS - is, for many, an inconvenient truth.

A map of operational and under-construction CCS facilities around the world
A map of existing and planned CCS facilities around the world
Image: Global CCS Institute

The Paris climate agreement – in which the world has agreed to limit global warming to well below 2˚C – cannot be reached without CCS. The International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which outlines the world’s path to reaching the energy-related UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, forecasts that at least 7% of emissions reductions will need to come from CCS.

Here’s one of the reasons why. Despite the acceleration of the green energy revolution, the world is expected to continue to depend on fossil fuels for its primary energy demand in the decades to come. According to the IEA, fossil fuels satisfy 81% of primary energy demand today. In the Sustainable Development Scenario this number is forecast to fall to 60%.

Ceasing construction of unabated sources of emissions is a must. Reports show that the world is at risk of locking in its emissions iby continuing to build coal plants without CCS today. While investments and the number of final investment decisions for coal plants without CCS have declined, unabated coal-fired power generation needs to decrease by 5.6% annually until 2030 to meet the Sustainable Development Scenario. And this calculation doesn’t even include all other unabated sources of emissions currently under construction. This infrastructure in total is expected to account for 95% of the world’s remaining total carbon budget until 2040. Deploying CCS to capture emissions from the industrial and power sectors is the only viable solution.

Carbon capture will enable a just transition for workers currently employed in the energy sector. It will build new low-carbon industries, repurpose existing infrastructure and keeping industries competitive in a low-carbon future.

CCS will help renewables thrive. Clean, dispatchable, back-up power – for example provided by natural gas plants with CCS – will be able to balance the intermittent nature of wind and solar generation while keeping costs down. In fact, researchers have found that CCS can reduce overall system costs and capacity requirements. In the US, innovators are already working on a next-generation natural gas power plant which is meant to provide reliable and flexible carbon-free power at cost-parity with conventional combined cycle gas power plants.

CCS remains the only technology that can deliver deep emissions reductions in hard-to-abate industrial sectors such as steel, petrochemicals and cement. After steel, the cement industry is the second-biggest source of industrial emissions, currently accounting for 6% of global carbon emissions. As population growth and urbanization are expected to reach unprecedented levels, so will temissions from these industrial processes whose product demand is tightly correlated with economic expansion. CCS is the only technology available to deeply decarbonize these two sectors. In these sectors, CCS will also help to keep the cost of abatement down. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that a climate technology-mix without CCS will likely result in more than double the cost to reach 2oC and that it is doubtful that the objective can even be achieved without CCS. Two promising projects in the cement industry in Norway and Belgium are currently underway.

In the long run, CCS can become the foundation of a new clean and sustainable energy economy. The production of low-cost hydrogen with CCS opens a plethora of opportunities for this energy vector in industry, heat, transportation and energy production. In the UK, for instance, the CCS-equipped HyNet North West facility is expected to produce hydrogen for industrial sites, home heating and as transportation fuel. The project could potentially serve more than 2 million homes and businesses. And the H21 North of England project aims to convert part of the northern UK gas grid to hydrogen decarbonized with CCS.

As the world continues to emit more CO2, it is likely to overshoot its climate goals. Direct air capture (DAC) technologies, albeit nascent, will be able to suck CO2 out of the air. The deployment of CCS provides learning opportunities and infrastructure for these early technologies.

Currently, CCS deployment is off-track. There are 43 large-scale CCS facilities – 18 in commercial operation, five under construction and 20 in various stages of development around the world. Projections estimate that by 2040, we will need more than 2,000. While abundant storage is mapped and available to trap hundreds of years of emissions, there is still a long way to go in terms of policy and deployment.

The first step would be to recognize that there is no silver bullet. We can no longer afford to ignore CCS, or talk about one solution vs another; the goal must be to eliminate CO2. We need energy efficiency. We need renewable energy. We need CCS. It’s time to embrace an all-encompassing approach to clean energy globally – one with consistent government and private sector support – and the only approach that will enable us to reach our climate goals.