Carbon Capture Technologies: The Key to Net-Zero or a Step In the Wrong Direction?
Written By: Zoe Zakrzewska
Edited By: Jackson Hejtmanek
In the last several years, there has been a surge of companies and countries announcing their net-zero pledges: commitments to balance the amount of greenhouse gasses they emit with the amount they absorb from the atmosphere. The global goal, based on report projections created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5°C, a temperature threshold beyond which climate change will have far more disastrous consequences (Cho, 2021; Vaughan, n.d.).
There is no singular path to carbon neutrality. Complete avoidance of greenhouse emissions is the most straightforward and reliable option, but this is not possible for many industries. Carbon capture, utilization, and storage technologies have been proposed as one possible solution, and have been gaining a lot of attention as companies worldwide hope to utilize them to achieve net-zero (Gayle, 2022). The oil and gas industries have been keen to adopt the technologies, claiming it will be key to turning their operations more climate friendly. Chemical, steel and cement production companies are turning to carbon capture too, as their production processes are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and there is a lack of viable alternatives using current technology (Bulowski, 2023; IEA, 2021). However, serious limitations of carbon capture are often overlooked and many of the current usages of carbon capture are deepening our dependence on fossil fuels.
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage technologies capture carbon dioxide emitted directly at the source, preventing these emissions from entering the atmosphere. These technologies are used on large, industrial point sources like natural gas processing facilities, fossil fuel-based power plants, or steel and cement production facilities. There are two types of carbon capture methods. If the captured carbon emissions are immediately stored, the process is called carbon capture and storage (CCS), but if the captured emissions are first used as an input to certain products or services, and then stored, the process is called carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). Transportation involves pipelines and ships, and the carbon dioxide is stored long-term in onshore and offshore underground sites (Bulowski, 2023; IEA, 2021).
Although carbon capture projects seem promising at first glance, closer examination reveals serious issues with the technology’s efficiency. CCUS/CCS projects are often advertised as almost 100 percent efficient, but in reality, this rate occurs only under optimal conditions. A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that, out of thirteen carbon capture facilities that account for 55 percent of the world’s current operational capacity, underperforming or failed projects largely outnumbered successful projects. For instance, it was found that the Shute Creek facility in the United States, the largest CCUS facility in the world, fell short of its capacity by around 36 percent, and the Boundary Dam power plant in Canada fell short by around 50 percent. Maintenance shutdowns, outages, and technical problems are the main reasons for lower efficiency (Robertson & Mousavian, 2022).
Success rates also varied considerably by sector. There is no proven track record of efficient carbon capture projects in the power or industry sectors. Carbon capture in power facilities has largely been a failure, results have been mixed in chemical production plants, and carbon capture has only just begun to be applied to the steel and cement industries. On the other hand, almost all successes have been in natural gas processing facilities, an industry whose activities directly lead to increased fossil fuel production (Robertson & Mousavian, 2022). At present, carbon capture is only truly economical for the oil and gas industries, and is much more of a gamble for other sectors.
CCUS projects in particular also often help the oil and gas industries actually increase production. The vast majority (around 75 percent) of carbon captured is currently being used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). EOR involves injecting carbon dioxide into depleted oil and gas reservoirs to extract fossil fuels that were previously unreachable (IEEFA, 2022). When collected carbon is used for EOR, CCUS is ultimately helping promote further fossil fuel extraction and usage, which goes against the “net-zero” purpose of carbon capture: reducing emissions.
Another obstacle to be addressed is the need for assessment and monitoring of carbon capture storage sites. Even if carbon dioxide is stored in a suitable and secure site that is properly sealed, there is always a serious risk of leakage. However, many CCUS/CCS projects, notably those storing carbon through EOR, do not assess sites for suitability and do not have programs in place to monitor for leaks (Gayle, 2022; Bulowski, 2023). These issues will further undermine carbon capture’s status as a mitigation strategy if not properly addressed.
Even though carbon capture projects are advertised as a solution that is widely scalable, this technology currently benefits the oil and gas industries more than any other player. The vast majority of successful CCUS/CCS projects have been developed in natural gas processing facilities and captured carbon is primarily used to source additional oil through EOR (Robertson & Mousavian, 2022). Carbon capture as it is currently being utilized is encouraging continued fossil fuel production when the focus should be on decreasing such activities. Many argue that carbon capture is also drawing attention away from the fact that the majority of emissions – between 80 and 90 percent – come from the consumer usage of fossil fuels, not from their production, meaning that carbon capture does relatively little to decrease the overall emissions of the oil and gas industries (IEEFA, 2022).
On the other hand, it is currently difficult to determine how useful carbon capture could be in helping hard-to-abate sectors achieve net-zero due to a lack of data. However, if carbon capture technology improves in efficiency and cost, storage issues are properly addressed, and captured carbon is not used for EOR, CCUS/CCS projects could play an important role in mitigation for sectors struggling to avoid carbon dioxide emissions.
In brief, carbon capture is a technology that is expensive, risky, quite inefficient, and could actually be strengthening our dependence on fossil fuels rather than diminishing it. However, this does not necessarily mean carbon capture is a lost cause. If the technology stops being used to support the oil and gas industries so heavily, and efforts are focused on creating efficient and safe CCUS/CCS projects in industries that do not produce fossil fuels, carbon capture could play a much more positive and successful role on the path to net-zero.
International Energy Agency. (2021, April). About CCUS – Analysis. https://www.iea.org/reports/about-ccus
Bulowski, N. (2023, February 1). What The Heck Is Carbon Capture? The Pollution-Cutting Technology That’s Got Canada Investing Billions. National Observer. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2023/02/01/explainer/what-is-carbon-capture.
Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. (2022, September 1). Carbon Capture: A Decarbonisation Pipe Dream. https://ieefa.org/articles/carbon-capture-decarbonisation-pipe-dream.
Cho, R. (2021, December 16). Net Zero Pledges: Can They Get Us Where We Need to Go?. Columbia Climate School. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/12/16/net-zero-pledges-can-they-get-us-where-we-need-to-go/.
Gayle, D. (2022, September 1). Carbon Capture Is Not a Solution To Net Zero Emissions Plans, Report Says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/01/carbon-capture-is-not-a-solution-to-net-zero-emissions-plans-report-says.
Robertson, B. & Mousavian, M. (2022, September 1). The Carbon Capture Crux: Lessons Learned. Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. https://ieefa.org/resources/carbon-capture-crux-lessons-learned.
Vaughan, A. (n.d.). What Does 'Net Zero Emissions' Mean?. NewScientist. https://www.newscientist.com/question/net-zero-emissions/.