Can Carbon Capture and Storage help us deliver on climate change?

Recent years have seen a surge in enthusiasm for tackling climate change. However, the window of opportunity to do this is narrowing. Warming depends on cumulative emissions, meaning our attempts to limit it come with a finite carbon budget - a budget which is shrinking rapidly, and could be blown in less than 20 years.

As we’ve continued to eat this carbon budget, it has become clear that as well as cutting our emissions, we will need to capture them.

Carbon Brief animation: The Paris climate deal set a temperature limit of "well below 2C" of global warming, and says there should be "efforts" to limit it to 1.5C. But how much time do we have left before our greenhouse gas emissions take us past these thresholds?

Capturing carbon

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) involves trapping CO2 as it is produced by power plants and storing it deep in geological formations, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere. Capturing emissions is a critical addition to reducing them, partly because of the slow pace of climate action so far, but also because in some sectors - notably industry – cutting emissions to zero on any timescale is a formidable technical challenge.

Rolling out CCS at scale is therefore looking more and more like a necessity. Leading scientists have suggested our ability to hold warming below 2˚C could hinge on carbon capture, and the International Energy Agency expects CCS to account for a huge 13% of all global emissions reductions by 2050.

However, the technology is still relatively young and has struggled with delays, higher-than-expected costs and lost funding in recent years. In the UK, a £1 billion competition to fund the country’s first commercial scale CCS project was unexpectedly cancelled in 2015, and the future of the industry remains uncertain.

Elsewhere in the world large-scale CCS projects do now exist. By the end of 2017 more than 20 could be in operation, the first of which is now capturing nearly 1 million tonnes of CO2 each year. However, scaling this up to meet our climate targets could require hundreds more plants to be operating by 2030. This is achievable, but political momentum and investment are needed to speed up deployment of this potentially game-changing technology.   

Going negative?

CCS is also known as a component of ‘negative emissions technologies’, where it is combined with bioenergy. Negative emissions technologies are a popular, but controversial, solution to the risk of overshooting our dwindling carbon budget. While they remain unproven, these potentially allow us to go beyond carbon capture and actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

The most popular negative emissions technology is BECCS - Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage. This involves growing vegetation to soak up atmospheric CO2, before harvesting and burning it to generate power, simultaneously capturing the resulting emissions using CCS.

While BECCS sounds appealing, the use of land to grow vegetation for bioenergy opens the door to conflict over land rights and food production. With many of the scenarios in which BECCS helps us meet our 2˚C target requiring an area of land more than twice the size of India, this is a serious concern.

What can you do?

CCS technology is a critical opportunity to bring global emissions back in line with our climate targets, reducing our reliance on problematic negative emissions technologies such as BECCS. It is also a chance for the UK to combine climate and industrial leadership. CCS could add up to £4 billion to the UK economy by 2030 and create 30,000 jobs, but investment and support will be needed to realise these benefits. Claire Perry, the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, recently said she would like to see the UK taking a leading role in global climate action; ask your MP how support for CCS could contribute to this vision.