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CO2 capture: will technology save us?

Patricia Crifo
Patricia Crifo
Professor of Economics at École Polytechnique (IP Paris), Researcher at CREST (CNRS) and Associate Researcher at CIRANO
Natalia Pietruszewska
Student in Economics of Smart Cities and Climate Policies at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
TROTIN Johanne
Johanne Trotin
Research Assistant at CREST
Key takeaways
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could prove crucial in the fight against global warming.
  • In 2022, the total capacity of CCS projects under development was 244 million tonnes per year of CO2.
  • CCS remains controversial for financial and political reasons: deployment measures are sometimes referred to as “climate inaction levers”.
  • The world leaders in CCS are Canada and the United States, whose economies are based on fossil fuels.
  • CCS is at the heart of international climate discussions: its development will have to be part of a comprehensive transition strategy.

Cli­mate change is undoubt­ed­ly the most press­ing issue of our time, and we are now at a piv­otal moment. The effects of cli­mate change are unprece­dent­ed in scale, from chang­ing weath­er pat­terns that threat­en food pro­duc­tion to ris­ing sea lev­els that increase the like­li­hood of cat­a­stroph­ic flood­ing. If we do not act now, it will be more dif­fi­cult and cost­ly to adapt to these effects in the future. 

Economic benefits

From an eco­nom­ic point of view, we can use mit­i­ga­tion tech­niques, which, by avoid­ing or lim­it­ing the release of green­house gas­es (GHGs) into the atmos­phere, reduce the sever­i­ty of the effects of cli­mate change. The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) has empha­sised that to meet the goals of the Paris Agree­ment and lim­it the tem­per­a­ture increase to 1.5°C, we need to use tech­nolo­gies that remove car­bon from the atmos­phere, in addi­tion to step­ping up our efforts to reduce emis­sions. One such tech­nol­o­gy, CCS (Car­bon Cap­ture and Stor­age), could prove cru­cial in the fight against glob­al warming.

The num­ber of CCS projects has increased by 44% since 2021.

As observers at COP27, we were able to talk to var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives of gov­ern­ments and inter­na­tion­al organ­i­sa­tions, as well as to experts in the sec­tor. The high­light: car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (CCS) tech­nol­o­gy is the tech­no­log­i­cal advance that is receiv­ing the most atten­tion. The shift from ambi­tion to action is unequiv­o­cal, giv­en the data on CCS invest­ments. In 2022, the total capac­i­ty of CCS projects under devel­op­ment was 244 mil­lion tonnes per year of car­bon diox­ide. But how exact­ly does it work?

CCS explained 

In essence, CCS involves cap­tur­ing car­bon diox­ide pro­duced by pow­er plants or oth­er indus­tri­al process­es, such as steel or cement pro­duc­tion, trans­port­ing it and then stor­ing it under­ground. Saline aquifers or deplet­ed oil and gas reserves, which are usu­al­ly at least 1 km below the sur­face, are poten­tial stor­age sites for car­bon emis­sions. Along­side CCS is a sim­i­lar idea called CCUS, which stands for Car­bon Cap­ture, Uti­liza­tion and Stor­age. The con­cept is to recy­cle car­bon in indus­tri­al process­es by turn­ing it into plas­tics, con­crete, or bio­fu­el instead of stor­ing it.

In Sep­tem­ber 2022, the Glob­al CCS Insti­tute count­ed a total of 196 CCS projects, of which 30 were already oper­a­tional and 153 were still under devel­op­ment. The num­ber of CCS projects has increased by 44% since 2021, con­tin­u­ing the upward trend in CCS projects under con­struc­tion that began in 2017. The past 20 years of expe­ri­ence have high­light­ed the diver­si­ty of appli­ca­tions for CCS and its key role in man­ag­ing emis­sions from indus­tri­al processes.

Progress in CCS over the last few years

Through the CCS net­works, we expect to see an increase in strate­gic alliances and col­lab­o­ra­tion to dri­ve imple­men­ta­tion. With sev­er­al blue hydro­gen projects under devel­op­ment around the world, clean hydro­gen and oth­er low car­bon fuels are also part of the growth of CCS. Direct Air Cap­ture with Car­bon Stor­age (DACCS) has also seen an increase in inter­est and par­tic­i­pa­tion this year, with bil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing ear­marked for scal­ing up this technology.

A solution for ecological transition at the expense of emissions reduction?

Although promis­ing, these tech­nolo­gies remain con­tro­ver­sial, notably for finan­cial and polit­i­cal rea­sons. Indeed, the eco­nom­ic effort deployed for the devel­op­ment of these strate­gies is con­sid­er­able, for results that are cer­tain­ly promis­ing but still uncer­tain. More­over, by con­cen­trat­ing efforts on car­bon seques­tra­tion tech­nolo­gies, it is pos­si­ble that those involved in the eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion will side­line the issue of emis­sions reduc­tion, so much so that poli­cies geared towards the deploy­ment of CCS are described by their detrac­tors as “levers for cli­mate inaction”. 

The deploy­ment of CCS can­not be achieved with­out gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion, which makes it a high­ly polit­i­cal issue.

CCS infra­struc­ture is expen­sive, which makes it dif­fi­cult to attract investors, espe­cial­ly as the ben­e­fits are not always evi­dent. For exam­ple, in the Unit­ed States, 11 CCS projects had been under­tak­en by the Depart­ment of Ener­gy by the end of the 2000s, eight of which were in the coal sec­tor at a cost of $684 mil­lion. Of these eight projects, only one was com­plet­ed and oper­a­tional from 2017 to 2020. In Europe, CCS projects are also on the rise, with north­ern Euro­pean coun­tries (Nor­way, the Nether­lands, and the UK) announc­ing more than €5bn to be invest­ed in CCS. 

Accord­ing to an Ifri report, the cost of CO2 cap­ture, trans­port and stor­age is between €40 and €200/tonne with cur­rent­ly avail­able tech­nolo­gies – the high­er end of this range cor­re­spond­ing to par­tic­u­lar­ly pol­lut­ing infra­struc­tures such as pow­er plants and waste incin­er­a­tion plants. This cost, although decreas­ing with the evo­lu­tion of the tech­nol­o­gy, remains high­er than the price of CO2 on the car­bon mar­ket, under­min­ing the incen­tives for pri­vate actors to invest in CCS. 

Cana­di­an ener­gy mix in 2020.

Deploy­ment of CCS can­not there­fore be achieved with­out gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion, which makes it an high­ly polit­i­cal issue. The ques­tion of pub­lic invest­ment in CCS says a lot about coun­tries’ or regions’ strate­gies for achiev­ing the 1.5°C tar­get set by the Paris Agree­ment, and about their vision of the eco­log­i­cal transition. 

The lead­ers in CCS today are the states and actors whose economies are based on fos­sil fuels: in Europe, for exam­ple, CCS are main­ly pro­mot­ed by pol­i­cy­mak­ers in coun­tries whose ener­gy mix is main­ly based on oil and gas. In the world, the lead­ing coun­tries for these tech­nolo­gies are Cana­da and the Unit­ed States, which also have a high­ly con­cen­trat­ed ener­gy mix. Dur­ing the COP27 nego­ti­a­tions, the Gulf States, and in par­tic­u­lar the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, also showed their enthu­si­asm for CCS, which was pre­sent­ed as one of their main levers of action for achiev­ing the objec­tive of Zero Net Emis­sions by 2030. 

US ener­gy mix in 2021.

In the pri­vate sec­tor, the main sup­port­ers of CCS devel­op­ment are also oil com­pa­nies: Exxon­Mo­bil and Big Oil in the Unit­ed States, Total­En­er­gies and Tech­nip in France, which are sus­pect­ed of using their invest­ments in CCS as a means of divert­ing pub­lic atten­tion from their oil and gas activ­i­ties to pre­serve them. Indeed, COP27 was strong­ly marked by the pres­ence of oil and gas pro­duc­ers, who were 25% more numer­ous than at the pre­vi­ous COP in Glas­gow. The CCS was at the cen­tre of their dis­course on their strat­e­gy to decar­bonise their activities.

Region­al Car­bon Cap­ture Strate­gies: The U.S., EU, and Beyond by Zero-Car­bon Future – pan­el dur­ing COP27. Cred­its: N. Pietruszewska.

On the road to COP28

Coun­tries such as Qatar, Kuwait, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE), Bahrain and Sau­di Ara­bia are among the top ten per capi­ta car­bon emit­ters. As a result, the Mid­dle East, and North Africa (MENA) is con­sid­ered one of the most green­house gas inten­sive regions. 

GHG emis­sions in MENA.

In Sharm, dis­cus­sions of our hopes for tech­nol­o­gy revolve main­ly around CCS. Inter­est­ing­ly, one of the main play­ers on the inter­na­tion­al scene pro­mot­ing this tech­nol­o­gy is the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, which will host the Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties in 2023. 

As a tech­nol­o­gy with great poten­tial, CCS is in any case cen­tral to inter­na­tion­al dis­cus­sions on the cli­mate issue, and its devel­op­ment will need to be part of a com­pre­hen­sive tran­si­tion strat­e­gy with clear and con­crete objectives.

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