Interview with Prof. Stuart Haszeldine on increasing carbon storage capacity

50 Million tonnes of carbon storage capacity is welcome but it needs to be double that – we’re already 50 years late on a 50 year problem, says Stuart Haszeldine, Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage Director and Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh (UK).

Stuart Haszeldine profileProfessor Haszeldine has over 35 years’ research experience in energy and environment, innovating new approaches to oil and gas extraction, radioactive waste disposal, carbon capture and storage and biochar in soils. He has been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, awarded the Geological Society William Smith Medal and was appointed Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to climate change technologies.

Why do you believe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are important for climate mitigation?

Stuart Haszeldine: I started off my professional career as a geologist working in oil, gas and coal. In the early 2000s, I went to a geology meeting in Strasbourg, where people were talking about the idea of putting carbon dioxide back in the ground. I thought this was an environmentally sensible thing to do and because we know so much about this already from oil and gas we should have that sorted in a few years. Now here we are 20 years later and we have still not quite got there. I think that is not a technical problem, but a political problem – politicians haven’t provided enough certainty, enough push. And so emitting companies have not been incentivised or forced to actually confront the problem.

Environmental modelling shows that Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is absolutely essential if we are going to stop the runaway warming of the world and dangerous climate change. You can reduce the amount of hydrocarbons used, use them more efficiently, but there is still a huge need for storing carbon underground, safely and securely for very long time periods, 10,000 years of more. Geologically that’s quite a short timescale, but in the policy, political and business world, 10,000 years is impossibly long. That’s important, as we need to know how long we’re storing for and price and regulate that accordingly. We’ve got to have proper fixes and geological storage of CO2 is one of the best fixes.

What is the difference between carbon reduction and carbon removal?

Stuart Haszeldine: CCS can reduce emissions, but we’ve also got to recover emissions: CO2 emitted from my life and your life, your parents’ and grandparents’ lives. All that CO2 is an excess load on the climate system. To recover emissions in Europe for net zero, with a balance between emissions and storage, we’re looking at hundreds of millions of tonnes a year to be recaptured. That’s going to be a really difficult task – we should have been doing that since the Paris Agreement, but since then nothing has been recaptured in any significant sense.

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. That’s why I welcome the proposed Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA) that places a requirement for 50 million tonnes of storage capacity to be available in 2030. 50 million tonnes is welcome but it needs to be double that – we’re already 50 years late on a 50 year problem.

Europe has a fundamental contribution to make to this climate clean-up. Between Europe and the United States (with the US Inflation Reduction Act), there is a good chance of turning CCS into a profitable business and making recapturing and reducing emissions business as usual. Ideally, we would have five or six different technology pathways of CCS processes, each doing 10 million tonnes a year by 2030, that we can then scale up every five to ten years.

Have you noticed a change in political attitudes to CCS?

Stuart Haszeldine: Our work suggests that. All this requires building equipment and power stations, which, although daunting, is perfectly possible. If you work out a pathway towards 2050, we should be storing 50 million tonnes now and scaling up progressively, as big industries have done in the past.

The NZIA is still just a proposal; parliamentarians involved need to understand that it is a critical failure of Europe to have not made CCS into a business. Europe needs to fight back against the US Inflation Reduction Act, otherwise it will suck in all this new business. Developing CCS creates new, skilled jobs and new types of technologies, as well as considering the important political, moral and environmental aspect of cleaning up your own emissions

Green technologies and renewables in the last 10 years have become the fastest growing parts of the economy, and these new CCS and carbon recovery technologies will also become really fast growing. They will be profitable investments, but they need the seeds carefully planted and watered by government. Then business and industry, banks and finance, they can see it works and have confidence to invest.

CCS hasn’t got the same drive as with renewables, partly because it gets mixed up with people believing we should cancel fossil fuel extraction and there is an accusation that CCS will prolong the fossil fuel industry. I think that is a false argument – the fossil fuel industry has produced huge benefits for our society, but the huge problem is that we have not regulated and mandated the clean-up. If we can use fossil fuels, as extremely convenient storable, transportable and widely accessible energy, without the emissions that we have today, then yes, we can carry on using them. But we need to ramp up this clean-up, it’s not something we can pass onto our grandchildren.

What about fears that CCS could be used as an excuse to cover up emissions?

Stuart Haszeldine: That is partly true, it could be an excuse – but that’s why governments need to set and enforce targets. In Europe that is currently done through the Emissions Trading System (ETS) which sets a price on emissions. That’s been helpful, but emissions purchases have been cheap so companies buy them and just carry on emitting. I think that the ETS is enabling business as usual and now the time has come to toughen up on that.

I am part of a group in the UK who are trying to convince the UK government to place a carbon take back obligation on fossil fuels suppliers. Anybody who brings fossil fuels to the UK will be given the mandate to store 10% of that fossil carbon by 2025, maybe 30% by 2030, and then 100% by 2045. It avoids the government guessing which price is necessary, as the price will be discovered by different actors developing their own carbon capture, transport and storage systems, who will then compete with each other on price. To get paid for storage, rather than for carrying on emitting, that’s not quite there yet in the UK or in Europe, and making it a mandatory action is the final piece.

I think that we have not paid enough attention to CO2 from biological sources: from factories making ammonia and fertiliser, fermentation plants making beer, whiskey, or industrial alcohol. These are emitting CO2 we could easily be capturing and storing. But under European rules, these emissions are viewed somehow as different, as not harmful because eventually they will be captured by plants.

There is indeed a cycle, but I argue that’s a false analysis because we’ve got the problem right now – we can’t wait for trees over the next 100-200 years to recapture CO2 and all that biological CO2 will have the same warming effect as CO2 from fossil sources. So we should be mandating the clean-up of both fossil CO2 and biological CO2. The Commission could adapt the taxonomy to reflect that biological CO2 is just as valuable to capture and store for minimal cost, so it can attract a higher price as a removal and not just as reduction.

What is your outlook on the future of CCS technologies and their role in the transition to net zero?

Stuart Haszeldine: I have a positive outlook, because the alternative is certain death – we know from the geological past that when CO2 has increased rapidly in the atmosphere, it has overwhelmed the natural weather cycle and the consequences were a mass extinction of life. We are now artificially manufacturing a sixth period with ultra-rapid emissions and we can see we’re causing changes in the weather and climate, the signs are all exactly following the predictions made by climate models.

I’m an optimist on CCS. 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. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, but the government needs to turn CCS and removals into normal business.

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