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Carbon capture and climate change: cut the nonsense

16th January 2019

The following Opinion Editorial from Global CCS Institute CEO, Brad Page, was published on 16 January 2019 on Morning Consult.

What role does carbon capture and storage play in the energy transition? Al Gore, one of the most important climate change champions, recently called these technologies that capture CO2 and prevent it from entering the atmosphere by storing it underground “nonsense” in an interview with Axios during COP24.

This is unfortunate. It is also wrong. Hopefully, the following may shed some light on the progress already made and the ever-increasing, absolute need for CCS.

Let’s be clear upfront. The Paris Agreement target of between 2 and 1.5 degrees Celsius is a massively difficult objective, so much so that in the three years since the agreement was thrashed out, the world remains stubbornly stuck on a 3C+ trajectory.

Time is running out. We require every possible emissions-busting technology available. That includes CCS.

The International Energy Agency laid out in its Sustainable Development Scenario — in which the world reaches the energy-related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement — that CCS accounts for at least 7 percent of cumulative emissions reductions by 2040. Far from regarding CCS as nonsense, these credible, analytical and independent organizations see it as vital.

Much of the CCS debate focuses on the electricity sector, where we have diverse options for decarbonization, including CCS. But even there the realities are confronting.

The average age of coal-fired power plants in developing Asian nations is just 14 years. They have an average remaining life of about 40 years, and their premature closure is unlikely. The emissions from these facilities cannot be ignored. Nor can they be wished away.

Even in developed countries, the challenge of balancing electricity grids with ever-increasing intermittent renewables is real. Zero-emission electricity is central to the future carbon-free economy. But with balancing services likely to continue to be dominated by gas-fired plants for several decades yet, CCS is necessary.

The industrial sector, responsible for about a quarter of global emissions, however, has few options to decarbonize and will be relying in large measure on CCS for its low-carbon future. Decarbonizing sectors such as steel, fertilizer, cement, plastics, chemicals and paper is not a matter of substituting fossil energy with zero-emission electricity.

Most of these processes require either carbon in their chemistry or high heat input, neither of which electricity is able to provide. In fact, 16 out of the total 18 large-scale operating CCS facilities globally are in the industrial sector, including natural gas processing and ethanol production. That’s because CCS is proven, cost effective and works when supported by government policy.

And then we have the need for carbon dioxide removal — negative emission technologies — because all of the credible analyses show that we are beyond the point of simply abating our way out of this mess. We will have to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Directly capturing the CO2 as well as using biomass for energy, both with CO2 storage, will be necessary and on a large scale.

It has to be clearly understood that CCS is not about replacing or competing with other sources of clean energy such as energy efficiency and renewable energy. This is not an “either-or” debate; it’s about the “and.” CCS is about delivering additional emissions reductions on the road to net-zero, especially in those sectors, where these clean energy sources reach their limits.

The cost of CCS depends on the application and can range between $20 and $130 per tonne of CO2, depending on the purity of the CO2 stream. What seems high at first glance is actually incredibly cost effective when the alternatives are costed and priced on a like-for-like basis.

What is needed to drive deployment at scale is policy confidence. The IEA has concluded that 70 percent of global energy investments are expected to be driven by government decisions. Hence, how the energy transition will pan out lies with governments.

For CCS, the United States, Norway, the UK, Canada and Australia have set significant precedents in terms of policy incentives, storage mapping and legal and regulatory frameworks. With this experience, we know how to establish the right policies.

Rapid changes and transformations of infrastructure are not simple. But as we have witnessed throughout history, they are achievable. Time has run out for us to be battling over which technologies should be part of the solution. So why all this nonsense?

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