Scarce carbon storage threatens net-zero push as emissions keep rising

Smoke from factory chimneys is silhouetted against the sky

The sun rises behind a gas fired power station in Minsk, Belarus February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

What’s the context?

Net-zero pledges around the world rely heavily on capturing and storing climate-changing emissions - but far too little storage is being developed

  • Net-zero pledges rely on more carbon storage than is being built
  • Move to hydrogen for fuel will add to carbon capture demand
  • Emissions 'take-back' rule for fossil fuel firms could help

By Laurie Goering

LONDON - A rush of net-zero commitments by governments and companies, alongside plans to slash industrial emissions and get new power from hydrogen, mean efforts to lock away more climate-changing emissions underground need to ramp up fast, energy analysts say.

But an accelerating push to build enough carbon capture and storage (CCS) capacity to meet expected demand - and hold onto global climate goals - faces huge obstacles, not least that most climate polluters still are not charged for the damage they do.

In a few places, from Norway to Canada's province of Alberta, companies that emit planet-heating gases are taxed, making paying to pump them into long-term storage underground more appealing and feasible - even if prices for the service are still high.

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But to hold planetary heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times - the more ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement - 800 million tonnes of CO2 need to be stored each year using CCS by 2030 and 2.8 billion tonnes annually by 2050, according to a 2020 report from the Global CCS Institute.

This week, a report from the Coalition for Negative Emissions ratcheted up that estimate, noting that a billion tonnes of CO2 already in the atmosphere would need to be sucked back out by 2025 to meet the 1.5C goal and another billion tonnes every year after that.

But the current pipeline of CCS projects in development could remove only about 150 million tonnes of CO2 by 2025, it said.

"Worldwide, we're facing a very deep problem", Haszeldine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Still rising emissions

The need to lock away carbon dioxide underground arises from a central problem: Five years after the Paris Agreement was adopted, emissions are still rising, apart from a brief COVID-19-related dip in 2020.

That is happening even as scientists say emissions must drop by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels to hold global warming to 1.5C.

To slash emissions - and the growing threats they bring, such as more extreme and costly heatwaves, storms and fires - people need to rapidly stop using fossil fuels, scientists say.

But breaking global reliance on those fuels is proving hugely difficult, even as prices for renewable alternatives from solar to wind plunge and as countries and companies representing two-thirds of global economic output make net-zero pledges.

The too-slow transition to clean energy means that capturing some carbon emissions and locking them away in old oil and gas wells, salty underground aquifers or porous rock is now unavoidable to help bridge the gap, scientists say.

Storage technology will also be vital for fledgling "negative emissions" efforts to suck out some of the CO2 already in the air, particularly if climate goals are missed as looks increasingly likely.

The IEA says CCS will be used to capture emissions from three main sources: from fossil fuel power plants as they are phased out, from carbon-heavy industries like steel and cement, and from production of an emerging energy source: hydrogen.

Hydrogen could replace transport fuels like oil, power industrial plants, and heat homes as natural gas boilers are retired under net-zero pledges in countries like Britain.

But making "green" hydrogen takes lots of energy. It could eventually come from large-scale solar and wind power, but there will probably not be enough clean electricity for the next 20 years even if capacity is added quite rapidly, Haszeldine said.

Until then, a big share of hydrogen is likely to be made using fossil fuels, with the resulting emissions captured and stored underground to lower its carbon footprint, he said.

Already, expected demand for CCS from fossil fuel power plants is falling as new deployment of ever-cheaper solar, wind and other renewable energy surges worldwide, analysts say.

"The story has shifted and is less about CCS for power now," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative.

A facility for capturing CO2 from air of Swiss Climeworks

A facility for capturing CO2 from air of Swiss Climeworks AG is placed on the roof of a waste incinerating plant in Hinwil, Switzerland July 18, 2017. Picture taken July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

A facility for capturing CO2 from air of Swiss Climeworks AG is placed on the roof of a waste incinerating plant in Hinwil, Switzerland July 18, 2017. Picture taken July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

'Take back' plan

As governments and companies recognise the vast gap between their plans to use CCS and the storage available - and what that means for achieving their net-zero goals - some are stepping up efforts to expand capacity.

Britain, for instance, as part of its Green Industrial Revolution plan, has allocated £1 billion ($1.4 billion) to a new CCS infrastructure fund and aims to drive creation of new industrial hubs with CCS attached.

The United States in turn has agreed to provide key tax credits for CCS technology to attract more investment.

But financial backing for CCS is still too low, said Richard Black, a net-zero expert at Imperial College London's Grantham Institute, during a London Climate Action Week event.

Despite featuring prominently in many national and corporate net-zero plans, CCS does not yet exist at significant scale, he said.

"It will only become a real thing when governments put a serious amount of money into making it happen," he said.

Haszeldine, of the University of Edinburgh, thinks one smart way to drive money into CCS would be to require fossil fuel firms to pay to "take back" the emissions their products create.

They are already experts at pumping CO2 underground, having done it for more than a half century at small scale to extract the last remaining oil and gas from drying wells.

Under a "take back" proposal backed by Haszeldine and colleagues, the companies would be required to neutralise, with underground storage, a growing percentage of their emissions starting from 2025 and rising to 100% by 2040 or 2050.

Such a plan would drive investment in renewables as they grow comparatively cheaper - and could even help fossil fuel firms transition to a new business model as carbon sequestration companies, he added.

Christian Mumenthaler, CEO of insurance firm Swiss Re Group, said "massive investments" are needed in CCS, with the nascent industry required to expand almost to the size of the oil and gas industry today.

"This is a huge challenge," he told an online event. "It's like saying we need to go to Mars in 10 years."

While it won't be cheap, failing to make CCS work would be far costlier, Haszeldine pointed out, as risks from wildfires, heatwaves and other climate threats ramp up.

"We'll end up spending more and more of our time repairing after giant storms and flooding from sea level rise. We're going to see increasing crop failures and migration - things impossible for us to manage," he said.

The price tag for swiftly scaling up CCS "is tiny compared to the alternative", he added.

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