You Asked: Does Carbon Capture Technology Actually Work?
“You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. In honor of Climate Week NYC and the Covering Climate Now initiative, we’re focusing on your questions about climate change.
The following questions were submitted through our Instagram page by one of our followers.
What is the current state-of-the-art carbon capture technology? Does it really work to help address the reduction of carbon footprint in a significant way?
“To put it briefly: Yes, it does work,” said Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He pointed out that industrial facilities that scrub carbon dioxide from their flue gas have reduced their life-cycle emissions of CO2 by 55 to 90 percent. The technology also reduces pollutants like sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxide, and particulates. And the best part is that it costs only $40 for per tonne of CO2.
The first carbon capture plant was proposed in 1938, and the first large-scale project to inject CO2 into the ground launched in the Sharon Ridge oilfield in Texas in 1972. Around 24 years later, Norway launched the world’s first integrated carbon capture and storage project, known as Sleipner, in the North Sea.
Today, there are 43 commercial large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities all over the world. Out of these, 18 are in operation and 16 are industrial.
According to the International Energy Agency, globally more than 30 million tons of CO2 is captured from large scale carbon capture, utilization, and storage facilities every year. Over 70 percent of this is done in North America. However, industrial facilities are capturing less than one percent of the CO2 that is required to meet the Paris agreement targets for 2040, says a 2018 report compiled by the Global CCS Institute.
The good news is that, over the years, the technology has evolved to a level where there are no technical barriers to effectively storing CO2 permanently on a large scale. If used more widely, experts claim it could go a long way toward meeting the ambitious climate targets that were set in the Paris Agreement.
Based on data collected over the last several decades, there is a wide consensus among experts, engineers, and geologists alike that it is safe to permanently inject and store carbon dioxide. As of today, five more carbon capture and storage facilities are being constructed and another 20 are in “various stages of development” globally.
In the above-mentioned carbon capture and storage facilities, the companies mainly use enhanced oil recovery, where CO2 is directly injected into oil reserves to make it easier to extract oil. The CO2 is then stored in the layers of rock that previously retained oil. Around 98 percent of the injected CO2 remains permanently trapped in the sub-surface. In the private sector, several companies are turning CO2 into profits.
The reason why carbon capture and storage technology is so sophisticated is that CO2 has been stored in natural rock formations for periods of over one thousand years. Every continent has natural carbon dioxide gas fields that have helped scientists to identify what type of reservoirs and rocks are required to permanently store and seal CO2.
Today, a surge of new technologies like hydrogen with carbon capture and storage and direct air capture show equal promise. A previous State of the Planet blog post written by freelance science writer Renee Cho details the different ways carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere.
The Global CCS Institute’s report asserts that the biggest obstruction to realizing the full potential of carbon capture and storage technology is that the market still does not provide any substantial incentives for companies to gain a full return on investment. The need of the hour is policies that fully support investments in carbon capture and storage.
The United States is the world’s leader in this space, hosting the highest number of large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities in the world. Out of the 18 facilities, 10 are in the U.S. Texas boasts of the largest facility, which is known as the Century Natural Gas plant. With access to such state-of-the-art carbon capture and storage technology, the U.S. has the potential to capture over 27 million tons every year — roughly equivalent to taking 5.4 million cars off the roads. That is if policies and incentives could keep pace with the technology.