Progress on Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Is Good News

Progress on Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Is Good News

Getting on track for net zero emissions by 2050 will require swiftly and massively ramping up carbon capture deployment.

In early March, oil and gas firms Chevron and Talos Energy announced their intention to triple the size of the proposed Bayou Bend carbon capture and storage hub, which will collect and store greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities along the Gulf Coast. The expanded hub could store more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), making it one of the largest carbon storage projects in the world upon completion.

Not everyone is convinced that recent progress on large-scale carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects is good news. Critics argue that CCUS technology is costly, unproven, and will give fossil fuels an undesirable “new lease on life.” But if the world is serious about addressing climate change, we should welcome forward momentum on this critical technology.

CCUS technology—which captures CO2 emissions from industrial facilities and reuses or stores them underground—supports the energy transition in several ways. These include reducing emissions from existing power plants; providing decarbonization solutions in hard-to-abate sectors such as cement, iron and steel, and chemical manufacturing; supporting the rapid scaling up of low‐carbon hydrogen production; and enabling negative emissions technologies like direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

The world’s leading energy and climate bodies agree that CCUS will play a significant role in a net-zero world. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its Net Zero by 2050 flagship report, cites CCUS as a “key pillar of decarbonization” that could account for up to one-fifth of global emissions reduction requirements. Of the seven “Illustrative Mitigation Pathways” that limit global warming to below 1.5°C identified in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, the sole pathway that does not include CCUS also requires global energy demand to halve in the next three decades—an unrealistic scenario given that energy demand is expected to increase as developing countries industrialize and urbanize. If we trust that climate change is as urgent and dangerous as the world’s leading scientists say it is, we should also take their word on the necessity of CCUS.

Today, nearly 80 percent of global energy supply comes from fossil fuels; these cannot be replaced by renewables overnight. Even if global fossil fuel use declined, in a straight line, to zero in 2050, the cumulative CO2 emissions over that period from the energy sector would amount to roughly 500 gigatons of CO2. Without CCUS, these emissions would make limiting global average temperature rise to 2°C extremely difficult, if not impossible, in light of emissions from other sectors before these can be eliminated. Clearly, CCUS is not only important but close to indispensable for meeting internationally agreed targets.

CCUS has a proven track record of safe, effective use across a range of applications. CO2 injection and storage in the subsurface has been used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) since the 1970s. Pure storage, without EOR, began in 1996. CCUS is often dismissed as prohibitively expensive, but there are around thirty-five commercial CCUS facilities already in operation today, and improved tax incentives, like those in the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, are making it increasingly economically competitive. Moreover, technological improvements, experience and learning, and scaling up will almost certainly drive the cost down over time, just as they did for wind and solar over the last twenty years. But concerns about price perhaps miss the point: the cost of CCUS pales in comparison to the climate damages it could prevent. It would be folly to invest only in the cheapest climate solutions.

CCUS is the key to satisfying the “energy trilemma”—our often-conflicting pursuit of energy security, affordable energy access, and environmental sustainability—which has been made more salient by the war in Ukraine. CCUS will play a particularly important role in retrofitting Asia’s existing fleet of predominately coal-based power plants, which are some of the youngest and most efficient in the world. With CCUS retrofits, these plants can avoid early retirement and continue operating with substantially reduced emissions—averaging 85 percent CO2 capture—providing affordable, reliable electricity while still delivering on national and global decarbonization and energy security goals. U.S. leadership on CCUS could provide a technological path to help major emitters like China and India accelerate their domestic deployment of CCUS.

We’re going to need every tool in the toolkit, including CCUS, to solve the climate crisis. Today, CCUS projects are already burying millions of tons of CO2 each year, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed. Despite recent progress, currently planned CCUS capacity for 2030 represents just 20 percent of that required in the IEA’s net zero emissions scenario. To get on track for 2050, we need a swift and major ramp-up, with more large-scale CCUS hubs like Bayou Bend to turn those millions of tons into billions.

Mohammed Al-Juaied is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a Courtesy Professor of Mechanical Engineering and a member of the Clean Combustion Research Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. He has more than twenty-five years of experience in R&D, commercialization, and project management of emerging energy technologies, including carbon capture, utilization, and storage.

Image: Anne Coatesy/Shutterstock.