The Untapped Value of Carbon Capture Technology

In his first week in office, President Biden has begun to implement new climate policies such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. According to Marco Tedesco, a professor at Columbia University, Biden’s plan could “reduce global warming by about 0.1°C,” which is a huge step forward. Part of Biden’s plan is to develop various types of green technologies including carbon capture and storage (CCS).

While renewable energy sources are effective strategies in lowering greenhouse gas emissions, they alone may not be adequate to limit the rise in global temperatures given the scale of the transition between fossil fuels and green energy. The CCS technology that the Biden administration is investing in is a key emerging player that must work alongside renewables in our fight against climate change.

CCS, put in the simplest terms, works to prevent carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere by capturing it and storing it in, most commonly, geologic formations underground. CCS is an effective means of offsetting carbon emissions. However, it is also a controversial technology; opponents point to the fact that CCS is very limited in scale, with under 20 CCS projects worldwide. CCS is also being used by fossil fuel companies as a justification to continue to expand fossil fuel usage. They frame CCS as the “solution” to balancing between fossil fuel use and limiting carbon emissions, even though the use of CCS at fossil fuel powered plants alone will not be sufficient in addressing our environmental challenges. Fossil fuels must eventually be completely phased out to solve the climate and environmental crises, and CCS is certainly not an excuse for fossil fuel use nor a replacement of renewable and clean energy sources. Thus, policy makers must be mindful of how CCS may be manipulated for the benefit of fossil fuel businesses. In order to prevent CCS from being characterized as a lifeline for fossil fuels instead of a key asset in the effective transition to green energy, we should fund renewable energy research alongside CCS, install the technology to existing fossil fuel plants to avoid building new ones, and remove federal subsidies for oil and gas.

The most effective way of curtailing emissions is not emitting in the first place, which can be achieved through renewables. However, there are various practical limitations to climate policies that focus solely on renewable energies. It is highly unlikely that fossil fuel companies would be willing to phase out fossil fuels in a very short time. The heavy influence of fossil fuel businesses in politics also makes it very challenging for politicians and lawmakers to eradicate fossil fuels and implement renewable energies at a rate and scale sufficient to address climate change. According to current estimates, it is very unlikely that we can limit the average global temperature rise to a sufficient degree with the current trend of climate policies. Finally, solar and wind energy, the two most used renewable energies, are intermittent in nature, and coal or other fossil fuels are used to balance it out, lowering the overall effectiveness of renewables in lowering emissions. Before large scale implementation and battery storage challenges in renewables can be tackled, renewables alone may not be enough. Thus, it is imperative to be open to multiple methods and employ various mitigation measures to tackle the climate crisis instead of solely investing in renewable energies.

CCS, when combined with renewables, is the most practical solution to our current climate crisis. The most promising option is bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), which has the potential to not only decarbonize electricity generation but also lead to negative emissions. The photosynthesis of biomass takes in carbon dioxide from the air, and BECCS captures carbon emissions in the conversion from biomass to electricity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is optimistic about the technology: BECCS “offers the prospect of energy supply with large scale net negative emissions which plays an important role in many low-stabilization scenarios.” Hence, this emerging technology is very exciting, as long as we address water use and the carbon footprint of growing and transporting the biomass.

Moreover, a CCS-renewable synthesis is financially and politically viable. CCS is necessary in our transition into renewable and clean energy generation as it can lower the cost of the process. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “without CCS, the transformation of the power sector will be at least [$3.5 trillion] more expensive.” In addition, there is bipartisan support for CCS development in the US, as exemplified by the passing of S. 383, the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act in July last year. Furthermore, CCS is already currently used in many heavy industries such as cement manufacturing, preventing large amounts of emissions from entering the atmosphere each year. Hence, not only do we have experience in using this technology, but it is also extremely practical when applied to the proper situations. As the government inputs more resources into researching more efficient carbon capture technologies, CCS, especially BECCS, will become increasingly cost effective and can be deployed at a large scale.

At the end of the day, governments around the world must set more ambitious climate policies in place and more rigorously enforce them for us to limit the global temperature rise to under 2°C. Since there are limitations to both renewable energies and CCS, by combining the two in optimizing energy generation, we will make a difference in our combat against the changing climate.

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