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The Next Economy
Carbon Capture and Storage:
Distraction, Solution or Both?

CCS proponents argue it can offset emissions from hard-to-abate sectors such as energy and heavy industry; while opponents fear it could further the status quo and distract from the need for real emissions reductions.

The world must quickly and thoroughly decarbonize if we have a hope of limiting global warming to 2°C or less; and removing already-emitted carbon from the atmosphere will play a key role in meeting those goals. We are likely to overshoot our 1.5°C target, but there remains some hope of bouncing back to a safe threshold. The IPCC’s most recent report suggests that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will likely play a major part in keeping temperatures from exceeding safe boundaries.

CCS is a group of technologies that divert CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently store it underground or convert it into products typically made from fossil fuels — including fuel, polymers, textiles and a growing range of consumer products. CCS proponents argue it can offset emissions from hard-to-abate sectors such as energy and heavy industry; while opponents fear it could further the status quo and distract from the need for real emissions reductions.

Historically, carbon-management technologies have received little federal investment compared to other cleantech solutions. But recent legislation in the United States is now attracting financing into the space, as investors finally see CCS as a realistic deployment in their portfolios.

CCS has the world’s attention

At the next United Nations climate summit in Dubai, COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber will likely push CCS to the top of the agenda — calling for an end to fossil fuel emissions, not a phase out of fossil fuels.

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“We must be laser-focused on phasing out fossil-fuel emissions while phasing up viable, affordable, zero-carbon alternatives,” al-Jaber said at a conference last month in Berlin.

Asked to clarify what he meant by “phasing out fossil fuel emissions,” al Jaber said, “We know fossil fuels will continue to play a role in the foreseeable future in helping meet global energy requirements; [so the goal should be] ensuring that we phase out emissions from all sectors — whether it’s oil and gas or high-emitting industries — while in parallel we should exert all effort and all investments in renewable energy and clean technology space.”

IPCC chair Hoesung Lee recently told the Guardian that carbon-capturing technologies are “no free lunch” to continue unabated fossil-fuel consumption, further noting that technologies like CCS should be used instead to mitigate the likelihood of overshooting 1.5° warming targets.

Still, even if it were possible to immediately shut down all fossil-fuel production, it’s likely that it would trigger staggering global ripple effects, said Jessica Oglesby, Senior Communications Lead at the Global CCS Institute. Fossil fuels currently provide 64 percent of the world’s energy. In absolute terms, fossil-fuel generation has actually increased 70 percent since 2000; and most of this generation will likely remain online past mid-century.

“The only way to remove those emissions is through technologies like CCS,” Oglesby said.

It’s not a license to pollute, however. Oglebsy warned against CCS as a smokescreen for continued status quo in hard-to-abate sectors such as oil and gas — similar to the debate around plastic cleanup and offset strategies in ending plastic pollution.

“We need to listen to science, not industry or politicians,” she said. “The climate math is pretty simple: CCS needs to be a part of the solution; but it does not mean that we have unlimited runway to use fossil fuels.”

‘No free lunch’ for oil and gas

And yet some of the most vocal advocates for CCS are preparing for a future where fossil fuels continue to make up a majority of energy use, even past 2050. ExxonMobil’s own projections have oil and natural gas producing over half of the planet’s energy in 2050, with renewables contributing 14 percent and coal still hanging on at 13 percent. The company’s five-year corporate plan projects spending upwards of $17.5 billion annually on fossil-fuel extraction in the Permian Basin, Guyana, Brazil and elsewhere; whereas the oil giant has earmarked only $6.8 billion for CCS, biofuels and hydrogen over that period.

The fossil-fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans involve new oil and gas projects that, if completed, could result in over 650 gigatons of new emissions. Even without continued fossil fuel development, pre-existing fossil fuel infrastructure around today will put the planet over 1.5°C of warming, so CCS is no free lunch for oil and gas.

“The [fossil fuel] industry has begun responding to investor demands, public policy requirements and societal expectations that will necessitate deeply fundamental changes to the industry’s business model,” the Carbon Capture Coalition said in an email to Sustainable Brands®, further warning that “companies that ignore or resist this reality risk accelerating disinvestment and decline.”

A 2020 literature review found that under current practices, point-source capture emits 1.42 to 4.7 tons of CO2 for each ton removed, and direct-air capture emits 1.46 to 3.44 tons for each removed. Any studies promoting CCS as a climate-mitigation tool, the report concluded, do so by “leaving out part of the life cycle process — by assuming low- or zero-carbon power sources, by invoking an emissions-discounting ‘displacement’ assumption or by ignoring that, in real-world practice, captured CO2 is primarily used for oil production.”

Historically, most CCS projects use captured CO2 to extract additional oil from depleting reserves, a term called “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR). However, new federal incentives mean that more CCS projects are being developed for projects other than fossil-fuel extraction. According to the Global CCS Institute, of the 37 commercial CCS projects online globally, 27 of them are used for EOR. But of the 250 CCS projects currently in the development pipeline, only 26 of them will be used for EOR — indicating a necessary shift away from fossil-fuel extraction.

Oglesby believes that comprehensive policy and incentives regulating carbon and encouraging CCS buildout will incentivize oil and gas companies to phase down production of fossil fuels. Putting a price on carbon and additional incentives will also be key in pushing fossil fuel toward emissions reductions in line with science, she said.

The Carbon Capture Coalition stressed that carbon management should be focused on hard-to-abate sectors — particularly, heavy industry. Part of the way the fossil fuel industry should shift is by utilizing CCS in activities that cannot be powered by renewables — such as chemical refining, cement and steel, or hydrogen production.

Current policy frameworks, the Coalition said, favor geological storage of captured carbon or its conversion into commercial products such as fuel or plastic. Hundreds of projects are in the pipeline; and according to the Coalition, “more than 70 percent of these announced projects intend to store captured CO2 deep underground safely and permanently in secure geologic formations.”

“The climate math says that carbon capture and storage is going to need to be part of the solution if we want to reach our net-zero emissions goals by mid-century,” Oglesby said. “We’re not saying it’s a silver bullet; but it has to be part of the mix in order to address emissions.”