Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has previously represented a dirty word to environmentalists. The critique of CCS as a distraction employed by fossil fuel companies has hampered its integration into environmental policy.

However, Amima Mohammed’s (UN Deputy Secretary General) warning to “act now before it’s too late” as COP26 draws closer, suggests a reconsideration of options for tackling climate change is required.

Averting a climate crisis will require a global, concerted effort involving a variety of sectors and stakeholders. There is an urgent need to reduce emissions and remove the carbon dioxide (CO₂) that has already accumulated in the atmosphere. CCS, which refers to the process of trapping CO₂ and injecting it into storage sites to prevent its re-entry into the atmosphere, will play an important role in achieving this.

A distraction

For many, CCS invites a level of scepticism. There are currently only small-scale projects operating, which prevent this method from making a significant dent in global emissions. Furthermore, financial and technological challenges have hampered upscaling in the past.

An MIT review asserts that the failure of high-profile projects has exacerbated doubts surrounding this technology. Petra Nova, a coal plant in Texas fitted with CCS, is a key example. Although the project was a poster child for retrofitting existing infrastructure, the costly carbon separation process meant the plant fell 600,000 metric tons below its carbon capture targets (IEEFA) and was mothballed in May 2020 due to a fall in energy demand during the pandemic.

In addition, public opposition has played a part in stalling the upwards trajectory of CCS. A report from GlobalData identifies how CCS aspirations within Europe were derailed when German citizens protested a retrofitting proposal at the Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe coal power plant in 2009-10.

Instead, nature-based solutions have provided a more palatable option for removing atmospheric carbon. However, the potential for changing climates to destabilize these natural carbon stores suggest a combination of approaches is required. CCS has the potential to fulfil this shortfall.

A work in progress

A GlobalData report indicates that CCS is set for growth in the future with a multitude of major projects planned beyond 2021. The process of separating carbon dioxide from emissions is also becoming more cost-effective with economies of scale and technological development reducing the amount of energy required.

The Biden administration’s commitment to 100% pollution-free electricity by 2035 with an emphasis on the CCS retrofitting of power plants represents an opportunity for this technology. Open-air carbon capture will also receive funding from Biden’s $3.5bn infrastructure bill, reflecting how CCS is increasingly becoming a priority for policy.

In response to these movements, a GlobalData report finds that a number of oil companies have positioned themselves as leaders within the CCS market. The multiple stages of capture, transportation and injection/ storage capitalise on the skills and expertise of oil majors. CCS also provides an avenue for the biggest polluters to gradually wean themselves off fossil fuels.

Although CCS has been critiqued for being used by fossil fuel companies as a distraction, a combination of technological development, finance, and political will are making the prospects of CCS more real. CCS is poised for growth, demonstrating the potential to play a major role in the fight against climate change.