Carbon capture, utilisation and storage technologies could help tackle hard-to-abate emissions in the fight against climate change, but they face challenges in investment, viability and scepticism when it comes to risks of greenwashing and allowing business as usual.
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) are a family of technologies that stop emitted carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere and prevent it from contributing to climate change. The captured CO2 can then be injected underground in porous rock formations (carbon storage) or it can be used for other purposes (carbon utilisation), such as in the production of construction materials, fuels or plastics.
Lately, CCUS technologies are receiving greater attention for their potential to combat the climate crisis. 2023 so far has seen extreme heat and droughts, as well as rain and flooding around the world, exacerbated and made more likely by climate breakdown.
There is a general consensus that some CCUS capacity will be part of the solution to reach net-zero CO2 emissions and meet international climate commitments. After all, they can be used to capture CO2 of remaining fossil fuel systems during the energy transition, and of industries that generate CO2 in the production of essential materials like cement and steel.
The International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Emissions scenario requires 6.2Gt of annual CCUS capacity by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
The European Commission includes carbon capture and storage (CCS) as one of the key technologies for the green transition in the proposed Net-Zero Industry Act, which sets a target for 50 million tonnes of annual storage capacity by 2030.
Stuart Haszeldine, Director of Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage and Professor of Carbon Capture & Storage at the University of Edinburgh: “There are a few tens of millions of tonnes a year captured and stored, but that’s a small drop in the ocean. We should be trying to work out every way we can go faster and bigger on all these projects. […] 50 million tonnes is welcome but it needs to be double that – we’re already 50 years late on a 50 year problem.” – Read the full interview of Stuart Haszeldine
A nascent industry
There are around 35 large scale CCS projects in operation worldwide. Some of these have been operating for several decades, not as climate mitigation initiatives but rather as commercial projects where CO2 is reinjected into oil reservoirs to increase yields. There has been a more recent boost in CCS projects driven by climate goals, with more than 200 projects currently in development.
A project led by the chemicals company INEOS and the gas and oil company Wintershall Dea was launched in March 2023 with the first full value chain for CCS in Europe, with CO2 captured in Belgium and transported and injected under the Danish North Sea.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen applauded the project as being “what Europe’s competitive sustainability is all about”, promoting innovation and competition while at the same time contributing to Europe’s climate neutrality goals.
As a nascent industry, the need for investment to promote CCS competitiveness and viability has been viewed as a challenge in the scaling up and deployment of the technologies, particularly when compared to cheaper renewable projects that have been falling in cost.
Mathieu Lucquiaud Professor of Clean Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Sheffield: “It’s an industry that requires public support to get started, because to unlock private investment you need to start the pump with public investment. […] There have been great achievements in wind and solar, but with CCS we are coming late to the party. If we want to stick to a trajectory of emissions that is compatible with 1.5°C and avoid the worst outcomes of climate change, we have to do a lot more.” – Read the full interview of Mathieu Lucquiaud
Controversial climate mitigation
CCUS technologies have faced scepticism due to their risks of allowing complacency or being used by fossil fuel industry for greenwashing and extending the life of carbon intensive products.
“Companies are promoting CCUS as a means to reduce operational emissions while selling more and more oil and gas, effectively buying time before they need to take more effective action to reduce emissions” said Maeve O’Connor, Associate Analyst on Oil, Gas and Mining at the think tank Carbon Tracker.
She said: “For policymakers to ensure the CCUS is used as an effective tool for climate mitigation, funding for the technology should be directed towards its use in the hardest-to-abate sectors of the economy, and not to prolong the shelf life of fossil assets.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Hoesung Lee has warned against an overreliance on CCS to reverse potential overshooting of the 1.5°C warming limit and that the use of these technologies was “no free lunch“.
Every tool in the box
Professor Lucquiaud acknowledged the scepticism around CCS technologies and noted that “we need every single tool in the box”.
He said: “CCS is a good, cost effective way of going after those 20% of emissions that you cannot decarbonise through energy efficiency, renewables, fuel switching and other low carbon technologies.”
Professor Haszeldine called for greater political push to promote the business potential of CCS industry in Europe and incentivise the cleaning up of emissions to prevent runaway warming.
He said: “There is widespread innovation, new businesses starting, we can create cheaper and more effective ways of capturing and storing CO2. But that’s no reason to delay, we need to roll this out at industrial scale everywhere and improve it as we go – because the alternative is worse.”