CCUS Puts the Net in Net Zero

As COP27 focuses attention on climate change, C-Capture’s CEO, Tom White, outlines the importance of carbon capture technology as part of a raft of urgently needed measures to reach net zero.

Not everyone agrees that CCUS is a good thing.

Its detractors have a point. The carbon capture industry does not have an unblemished track record, with some elements appearing to be too cosy with emitters wanting to grow their business as usual. More coal, more oil, more gas. There are also high-profile examples of expensive projects not delivering promised outcomes.

The spectrum of views were obvious at last month’s Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) conference CCUS 2022: Time to Deliver. I was there to participate on a panel and deliver a presentation highlighting the importance of new carbon capture technologies in reaching climate change targets.

Others were there for other reasons. Later in the day, a fellow delegate, sitting not far from me in the auditorium became so frustrated with some of the opinions shared by a speaker that she began to heckle – upsetting some other conference attendees.

A lively debate ensued in the break immediately afterwards, in which passionately held views were shared on points as varied as – respect; things to stop doing; things to start doing; the sense of urgency; the scale of the problem; natural solutions; engineered solutions; the time and cost required for the immense infrastructure.

Not everyone agreed.

It’s a complex, multi-layer problem with no one solution.

What did become obvious as this exchange unfolded, was the need for alignment on a logical ‘hierarchy of actions’, to achieve net zero. Here is what I took away from the conference.  

  1. Firstly, electrify everything that can be electrified.

Low-grade space heating, cars, short-haul aviation, heat-pumps, the lot. We mustn’t allow ourselves to limit our ambition in this space by the current limits of technology in storage and grid stability, which are improving at a dizzying rate. 

  • Secondly, decarbonise everything that can’t be electrified.

For high-grade industrial heating, shipping and long-haul aviation, let’s use energy carriers like hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuel, biofuels or ammonia – so long as they are produced in a carbon neutral way and don’t impact nature-based carbon sinks or food production.

  • Thirdly, for the remaining emissions, deploy carbon capture.

There are some industrial sectors that will still produce carbon dioxide (CO2) even after they make the switch to 100% green energy. Waste treatment and cement and glass manufacturing generate CO2 during their processes, yet modern society can’t function without them, for these we need to capture the CO2 and store it somewhere safe.

  • Lastly direct air capture, to un-do what we have already done.

The scale of the challenge to remove CO2 already emitted to the atmosphere is likely to be beyond the ability of purely nature based solutions, within the time we have left.

Even giants of our time, like Lord Adair Turner admitted that the experts don’t always get it right, citing reports published over a decade ago under his leadership as Chair of the Committee on Climate Change that unfortunately overestimated the CCUS capacity required.

The excellent 2022 report Carbon capture, utilisation and storage in the energy transition: Vital but limited from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) which he now chairs, states that by 2050, the world will likely need to capture and either use or store 7-10 Gt/year of CO2 (equivalent to c. 18-25% of today’s CO2 emissions). This ‘limited’ role of CCUS still presents an immense challenge, yet also an immense opportunity. We need to create a CCUS solution of equivalent magnitude to the current global oil industry, in less than 20 years.

On the second day, I must say I was a little surprised to see the delegate who had heckled speakers on day one, demonstrating with a mega-phone and banners outside the front of the event, bravely in the face of new police powers granted by Parliament.

She was imploring us to save the planet for the sake of her four children. I couldn’t agree more, for the sake of my four children.

So how can we win the race to net zero carbon emissions?

Make no mistake, we are in a climate emergency, and we are in a race. Not a race that some could win and another can lose, but a race in which all must run in the same direction at the same time, as fast as we can, to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C before 2050, before the time runs out.

I don’t know quite what the solution will be, but I do know I want to be a part of it and shape it.

I do know that to make net zero possible all participants in the spectrum of the debate need to collaborate because unless we are all successful, none of us will be.

So, it was with delight that I learned that the CEO of the CCSA Ruth Herbert had invited the protesters in, to be colleagues, to be part of the solution and will create space in the future to do so again.

These actions are not sequential. We have passed the point of choice. We have to do them all, and we have to them now.