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Post Paris, should we be going for CCCS = Compulsory Carbon Capture and Storage?

April 20, 2016

Postcombustion carbon capture technology

Shayne MacLachlan, OECD Environment Directorate

You may have seen the film called “Tomorrow”, or under the non-translated title “Demain”, popping up in cinemas all over the place. It’s a French documentary focussing on positive action in 10 countries, showcasing concrete examples in agriculture, energy and education that aim to address our current environmental decline. It’s certainly an encouraging and uplifting watch but I admit to leaving the cinema still troubled by the numbers I see daily and why globally we can’t shake our addiction to carbon. Not only are most of our economies still dependent on fossil carbon for the majority of energy supply, carbon dioxide (CO2) lingers in our atmosphere for a very long time. Even if we stopped emitting the stuff tomorrow, most of it will remain in the atmosphere several centuries from now. According to researchers, “About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.” Since the beginning of the industrial revolution (~250 years ago) we’ve released about 500 billion tonnes of CO2 from fossil sources and deforestation. We are currently on a path towards releasing the second half-a-trillion tonnes in the next 40 years.

Clearly a revolution in the global economy is needed for a heavy reduction of GHG emissions. You may have heard of Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. This technology prevents CO2 from fossil fuel combustion from accumulating in the atmosphere. In its most common form, this is achieved by capturing the CO2 after combustion at an industrial facility or power plant before it is emitted, then transporting it in a pipeline to a suitable location for permanent storage deep underground in rock formations. These rock formations could be depleted oil and gas reservoirs, such as those where natural gas had been naturally stored for millions of years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sees a big role for CCS in making a low carbon transition possible, both by tackling emissions from heavy industry and helping wean the power sector off fossil fuels at a politically feasible pace.

In the IEA’s scenario for tackling climate change at lowest cost, CCS makes up 13% of CO2 emissions reductions by 2050 compared to business-as-usual (see chart). The IEA’s Executive Director, Fatih Birol, has said that CCS “is an emissions reduction technology that will need to be widely deployed to achieve our low-carbon future” but the IEA has repeatedly noted that progress in CCS deployment is slower than was hoped for.

Contribution of technologies and sectors to global cumulative CO2 reductions link

CO2 reduction

Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2015

In a three-part interview, I talked to Kamel Ben Naceur, Director of Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks at the IEA, to find out how delays in CCS might risk the low-carbon transition and what is being done to advance it.

  1. What is the situation for CCS in 2016? How many projects are up and running and, at up to a billion dollars per project, how should we judge their value for money?

There has been considerable momentum in the deployment of CCS in recent times. We now have 15 large-scale CCS projects operating throughout the world, and 7 more are expected to come online in the next two years. By 2020, these 22 projects will collectively be capturing as much as 48 million tonnes of CO2 each year from coal-fired power generation, natural gas processing, steel manufacturing, and fertiliser and hydrogen production.

These projects are providing essential hands-on experience and enabling learning by doing technology cost reductions. For example, the operators of the Boundary Dam project in Canada, which is the first large-scale project to apply CCS to a coal-fired power plant, believe they could reduce the costs of the next plant by 30%. The value of these first-of-a-kind projects therefore needs to be considered not just in pure dollar terms but in terms of their contribution to ensuring CCS technologies are understood and available at a lower cost for future deployment.

Unfortunately, beyond the current wave of projects, there are very few new CCS projects being planned and there is a real risk that today’s momentum will soon be lost without policy intervention.

  1. Following December’s Paris Agreement on Climate Change, there’s been a lot of talk about the need for CCS if we are to transition to a net zero emissions future. Can you explain what this means in practice?

All low emission energy technologies, including CCS, will have an important role to play in supporting a faster transition to net zero emissions and in meeting the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that many long-term climate models are not able to constrain future temperature increases to 2 degrees or less if the availability of CCS and bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) is limited.

This reflects the unique contribution of CCS not only in directly reducing emissions from the use of fossil fuels, but in supporting negative emissions technologies that permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. Negative emissions may be needed to extend carbon budgets and balance “stubborn” emissions that are difficult to eliminate, for example in aviation or agriculture. BECCS is one of the most advanced negative emissions technologies but other more nascent technologies such as Direct Air Capture or artificial trees will also depend on the availability of geological storage.

In practice, this means that investment in the identification and development of geological storage facilities will be important, both as a solution to fossil fuel emissions and to ensure that we retain the option of deploying these negative emissions technologies in the future.

  1. How certain can we be that there’s sufficient storage capacity for the CO2 and are we sure it will stay underground?

With more than 20 years of experience in large-scale CO2 injection, storage and monitoring, there is a high degree of confidence that the CO2 will stay underground.  Since 1996, the Sleipner project in Norway has been injecting more than 1 million tonnes a year into a deep saline formation in the North Sea. Naturally-occurring CO2 has also been injected into oil reservoirs in the United States for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) purposes since the 1960s. Provided that the geological storage sites are appropriately characterised and selected, with natural trapping mechanisms, the CO2 is very unlikely to migrate to the surface. Advanced monitoring techniques have also been developed which enable early identification and intervention should the CO2 not behave as expected.

Estimates of global storage resources indicate that capacity should be more than sufficient. The IEA has assessed that, by 2050, as much as 360 GtCO2 could technically be stored just through EOR operations, in a scenario where operators placed emphasis on maximising CO2 storage alongside oil production. This is around 3 times greater than the storage requirements in the IEA’s 2 degree scenario. However, investment in storage exploration and development is needed to better define this storage capacity at a regional level and to support future planning for CCS-dependent facilities.

Useful links

IEA work on carbon capture and storage

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