Carbon capture and storage: time for a change

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carbon capture

Personal comments by Jon Gibbins, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage, University of Sheffield and Director, UK CCS Research Centre, on the need for change.

Despite rapid recent advances, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has to work out how to cope with change. It would be easier if the boundary conditions for implementing CCS, e.g., fuel prices, the policies and priorities of democratically elected governments, the state of the economy, alternative energy technologies and CCS technologies themselves, let alone global pandemics and wars, didn’t vary over time.

On policy, at the turn of the century it was thought (erroneously, even then) the UK target was being part of a global contraction and convergence to a 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. By 2008, UK politicians were told that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 would be adequate, but a decade later this had progressed to 100 per cent. And if these do not seem like big changes, a look at the allowable residual emissions tells a different story.

Moving goalposts

It would also be good, for everyone and not just for the CCS industry and researchers, if what actually needed to be done to avoid dangerous climate change didn’t change too, but change in that direction is now much more predictable than variations in government policies.

IPCC analyses have been showing for some time that global net-negative emissions are almost inevitable in the second half of the century to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and the amount of negative emissions that will be required, and their inevitability, obviously rises as each year of high global emissions goes by.

Policy still has to catch up on this, perhaps partly because a world trying to pull previous generations’ CO2 back out of the atmosphere, while also coping with warming and the costs of ‘adaptation’, will definitely consider, and probably deploy, some form of solar radiation management to buy time for the costly CO2 removal exercise – and to save lives.

It has been said that there is some constancy in policy because CCS has continued to be recognised as a priority over the last 20 years, but what CCS is expected to consist of, and to do, has actually changed in many ways.

For example, enhanced oil recovery, sometimes called utilisation, has come and gone as the big driver. Coal power plants were thought to be the only CCS application for many years – we had to fight to get support for gas CCS in the UK 2010 Energy Act – but are now (for the time being anyway) currently unimaginable in the UK.

The UK CCS Research Centre also had a struggle to get capture from industry on the funding map about a decade ago and direct air capture has only very recently – and probably still only partially – escaped from being branded as ‘geoengineering’ by the Royal Society and as morally hazardous by a number of vocal commentators.

The sector needs agility

All of this makes implementing CCS technology, which mostly relies on getting first-of-a-kind, technically and commercially, megaprojects to a positive final investment decision and then to timely and successful operation, very difficult. But this is the way things are. It is not much use complaining about change to politicians dealing with ‘events’ and no use at all complaining to the climate about its response to the CO2 we are dumping into the atmosphere.

The key is recognising, if not embracing, the need for a responsive CCS sector and designing infrastructure development, and research, development and deployment plans, to be able to cope, adequately at least, with a wide range of situations. Building in optionality needs to be explicitly valued to achieve this, founded on a healthy scepticism about the predictability of future conditions.

At the time of writing this introduction we are waiting to see which UK Track 1, Phase 2 CO2 capture projects get selected to go on to the next stage of preparing for FID. It will be interesting to conjecture how robust to change this selection appears to be – and more than interesting, since it affects global wellbeing, how robust to events it actually turns out to be.

A version of this article was originally published in the UKCCSRC Newsletter for July, 2022,