Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is a necessity, not an option, to achieve net zero emissions

Advocacy and campaigning for concrete actions to tackle climate change have increased over the last few years. Transforming the global economy to achieve net zero emissions (NZE) by mid-century is now widely accepted as a goal to limit global warming.

As of November 2022, around 140 countries had announced or are considering NZE targets. This level of ambition requires an acceleration in deployment of near-zero emissions technologies of all types, across all sectors. This includes carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Modelling of pathways to NZE by reputable agencies and organisations such as the IEA and IPCC all indicate that CCUS, with its versatility of application, demonstrated effectiveness and ability to deal with enormous volumes of emissions, is a necessary element of the technology suite that must be deployed if NZE is to be achieved. CCUS is an essential complement to emissions reductions because it is the only group of technologies that contributes both to reducing emissions in key sectors and to removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere to balance emissions that cannot be avoided. The IEA concludes that ‘reaching net zero will be virtually impossible without CCUS’, and ‘moving the net-zero goalposts from 2070 to 2050 would require almost 50% more CCUS deployment’.

The global response to climate change is advancing from ambition to action and this is clearly evident from the messages sent out from the European Conference of Carbon Capture, Storage and Reuse 2023, which I attended recently. The conference was held in Copenhagen on 16-17 May 2023 with around 400 delegates from 27 countries. The attendees represent various sectors including technologies and equipment suppliers (such as compressors, heat pumps, water treatment systems) and the hard-to-abate processes such as glass, lime and cement making, refineries, and waste-to-energy, as well as research institutions and governmental agencies, independent organisations. From the presentations and conversations among the delegates it is clear that there has been a significant increase in activity to develop CCUS projects.

According to the Global CCS Institute, with 61 new facilities added to the project pipeline in 2022, the CO2 capture capacity of all carbon capture facilities under development has risen to 244 MtCO2/y, an increase of 44% over the past 12 months. Global investment in CCS more than doubled in 2022 to hit a record $6.4 billion. New opportunities to use CO2 in the development of products and services are capturing the attention of governments, industry and the investment community. Indeed, many of the emitters are looking for opportunities to invest in CCUS. The waste-to-energy sector is currently leading the way in deployment of carbon capture. Municipal solid waste (MSW) that is used to produce power at waste-to-energy plants contains a large proportion of biomass materials (40-60% by weight). Some people call the biogenic CO2 ‘green’ CO2. A waste-to-energy plant can become emissions negative by capturing over 90% of the CO2 emitted. Therefore, waste-to-energy utilities with carbon capture can offset the cost of capture as they will have more carbon credits for sale. Delegates from several waste-to-energy companies introduced their plan to retrofit carbon capture devices with intentions to convert the so-called ‘green’ CO2 to value-added products.

Activities are also ongoing to develop carbon capture for hard-to-debate industrial processes such as cement, lime and glass making. Anders Petersen (Heidelberg Materials) presented the latest progress at the Brevik CCS project, the world’s first industrial-scale CO2 capture facility, at a cement plant in Norway. As part of the Longship project, Brevik CCS, which is partially funded by the state and partially funded by Heidelberg Materials, started construction in January 2021. When fully operational in 2024, 400,000 tonnes of CO2 will be captured annually. Northern Lights is responsible for the transport and storage components of the project. The Brevik CCS project is important as it will prove that it is possible to decarbonise cement production, and other hard-to-abate industrial processes using carbon capture. Its operation will also provide valuable CCS learning and insights.

Figure 1 Production of synthetic fuels and chemicals using captured CO2

In addition to reducing emissions, CCUS technologies enable carbon cycling by converting captured CO2 into commercial products such as fuels, chemicals, polymers and building materials. Therefore, carbon utilisation can create a demand for captured CO2 as a feedstock and the income from selling it can partially compensate the cost of carbon capture until the price of carbon prices is sufficiently high to perform this function.

There is a suite of technologies that can convert CO2 to various products. The synthesis of fuels and chemicals using captured CO2 has a potentially huge market. Hydrogen is a key component of this synthesis, as shown in Figure 1. However, these processes are energy intensive and expensive. Extensive R&D is ongoing to improve the existing technologies, lower their cost, and to develop innovative ones.

Despite the current high cost, CCU is attracting increasing interest from governments, industry and investors. Christian Schweitzer (Managing Director, BES Methanol, Germany) reviewed technologies for making methanol from captured CO2 and its application as a marine fuel. Ida Larsen (Manager Funding and R&D of Norsk e-Fuel, Norway) described the project undertaken by Norsk e-Fuel to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into aviation fuel. Norwegian Airline has recently entered a partnership with Norsk e-Fuel to build a full scale e-Fuel plant in Mosjøen, Norway.

Many of the conversations at the conference centred on policy support, financing and infrastructure. Although the EU and governments of some European countries such as the UK, Norway and Germany have invested heavily to support the uptake of CCUS, competition for the funding is strong. Recognising the potential of CCUS, there is growing interest from the private sector in seizing the business opportunity. For some businesses, CCUS is a critical tool in reducing their exposure to CO2 emissions, either directly or in their value chain, mitigating a strategic business risk. For others, CCUS is an opportunity to supply a new and growing market. Most delegates believe that given the required high capital and operating costs of CCUS, policy support measures similar to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of the USA are needed in Europe and elsewhere to enable the widespread roll out of CCUS. Some financing mechanisms and government backing to de-risk and strengthen the business case for investment is vital to encourage CCUS employment.

There is growing interest in investing in CCUS and new projects are being announced almost every week. However, the development of new CCUS projects can be held back by the lack of infrastructure such as pipeline or rail network, port and available storage sites. Building such infrastructure requires large investment and no single company can do this on its own. As the development of shared transport and storage infrastructure has become a focus for project developers and policymakers, coordination and cooperation among governments, industries, investors and technology providers are needed to build this infrastructure and pave the way for large-scale, widespread deployment of CCUS. The good news is that existing players in the oil and gas sector are developing infrastructure projects, and they have long histories of building pipeline projects and drilling wells. Hence, these projects fit well with their experience and core competencies.

The message from this conference is clear: CCUS technologies have a crucial role to play, in efforts to reach NZE and especially in helping hard-to-abate industries decarbonise. The outlook for CCUS has never been more positive, but obstacles remain. CCUS technologies must be deployed at unprecedented rates to control and reduce CO2 emissions. While the private sector has the capital, the resources, and the expertise to meet that challenge, governments should unleash that potential and drive investment in CCUS through supportive policies.