3 reasons we need carbon capture to reach net zero
From steelmaking to wind turbines and the potential of hydrogen, there are many reasons we need carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) to help us reach net zero. Here are just three of them.
- Vital industries create large amounts of CO2, and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is the most effective way to decarbonise them
- Despite the progress of renewables we still need diverse sources of power
- Australia has the potential lead the way in low emission industries of the future like ‘blue hydrogen’
If the world continues on its current trajectory, the planet could heat up by 3 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century, according to the UN. To deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to move much more rapidly toward net-zero carbon emissions.
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is a proven technology that has the potential to be an emissions gamechanger. There are currently 21 plants around the world capturing CO2 from power plants, industry and the air. When combined with a further 38 projects in development or under construction, the capture potential of all CCS facilities globally is 127 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
And Australia could be at the forefront of this development.
In addition to identifying significant storage locations for carbon, the country is now well-placed in policy terms, too. The Australian government has announced increased funding for new technologies that can cut carbon emissions. It has also expanded the range of technologies that can receive funding to include carbon capture and storage. This move echoes global policy trends to support CCUS.
“This is really significant,” says Alex Zapantis, General Manager at the Melbourne-based independent think tank, the Global CCS Institute. “It marks a significant shift in Australian climate policy: this is the first time in a decade where the government has really provided the opportunity for material support for carbon capture and storage.”
But why exactly are governments interested in carbon capture when renewables are already expanding? And why can’t factories just cut emissions and use less power? Here are three key reasons why CCUS should play an essential role on the journey towards net zero.
Vital industries create a lot of CO2
Every time a tonne of steel is produced, it creates, on average, 1.83 tonnes of CO2. The trouble is, we still need it. Whether we like it or not, steel − like other energy-intensive industries including concrete and chemicals − continues to be one of the key building blocks of the modern world. It is used in almost every home, building, road, plane, train and automobile. That’s why 1.8 billion tonnes of crude steel was produced in 2018.
Progress is being made in low-carbon production − but too slowly: even eco-friendly electric arc furnaces need enough renewables to power a town of 100,000 people, and they only work with scrap metal. Creating enough steel to meet global demand means new steel being made from iron-ore, which requires levels of heat currently only possible from coking coal or natural gas.
Game-changing clean technology behind what is known as ‘green steel’, such as replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen, is still in relatively early stages of development.
That’s where CCUS comes in.
It’s the technology with the potential to bridge this gap between what we need now, and where we need to get to. That’s because it can capture around 90% of CO2 from existing industrial processes. Abu Dhabi, for example, has been capturing the carbon from steel production since 2016 and it’s planning to expand.
But industries like steel aren’t just about products: they have responsibilities to people too. It’s why the Global CCS Institute emphasises the need to deliver a “just transition” for fossil fuel-based communities − for a number of reasons.
“Around the world, existing emissions-intense industries already have access to a skilled workforce, as well as infrastructure like ports and rail,” says Zapantis. “Providing a pathway to low emissions not only protects livelihoods; it also creates allies for new technologies and uses the assets you have built up.
“It’s the right thing to do.”
We still need diverse sources of power
This summer, the UK’s national energy network fired up a coal-fired power station. Why was this surprising? It was for the first time in 55 days. A heatwave meant wind turbines weren’t moving and gas generation couldn’t cope. It was a clear reminder that while we are moving to a cleaner energy system, it isn’t there yet and we will still need to draw on many sources to deliver affordable and reliable energy on demand.
Another reason is scale: while Australia’s renewable energy industries have made great progress, they still accounted for just 21% of electricity generation in 2019. The country still relies on fossil fuels for almost four-fifths of its electricity generation. A range of technologies is needed for clean, reliable and flexible power that is also affordable.
Analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that without CCS, the financial cost of mitigating climate change would rise by 138%, making the task of limiting global temperature rises to even 2 degrees Celsius harder still. By building carbon capture into a range of energy systems - from natural gas and coal to biomass - emissions can be lowered at an affordable level for consumers, taxpayers and the industries themselves.
Therefore, if we are to meet our Paris Agreement commitments, we need the flexibility that CCUS allows us. By incorporating carbon capture into an industry’s facility − and retrofitting existing facilities − we can both decarbonise the capacity we have right now and build the net zero-emissions technology of the future.
New industries create new opportunities
“Australia has lots of coal, lots of gas, and lots of space for storage,” says Zapantis. “So it has the essential resources to make near-zero-emissions hydrogen.”
Hydrogen’s potential to be a gamechanger in the race to net zero is clear: a single kilogram has the same energy density as a gallon of diesel. It can be used to generate heat and electricity, and the only emission when it is burned is water – there is zero CO2.
The hydrogen gas can be used to decarbonise some industrial processes, as well as the most polluting forms of transport. The Energy Transitions Commission forecasts that rather than fuel cell cars, hydrogen’s greatest impact will be on heavy transport like road freight and shipping. There are already multiple nations across the world using hydrogen-powered buses for public transport, while Germany is operating the world’s first hydrogen train.
Old industries can also help bring down the costs of the new fuel, as Zapantis explains: “One of the lowest-cost ways of making so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ is by the gasification (high temperature reaction) of coal.
“That’s because you get a very high concentration stream of CO2 (used in the hydrogen manufacturing process), so it works out very low cost.”
Policy makers also acknowledge that the best way to produce carbon-free hydrogen is to combine existing production methods with CCUS.
In Australia, the government’s National Hydrogen Strategy has set out 57 actions, from infrastructure to R&D, intending to create a world-leader in both hydrogen production and exports. The Federal Government has begun a feasibility study with Germany into the creation of a hydrogen supply chain. Ministers think global hydrogen demand could be around 530 million tonnes per annum by 2050.
The domestic industry is already showing signs of promise, from a planned $500 million investment in Victoria that will turn brown coal into hydrogen, to a pioneering study of zero-emissions ‘blue hydrogen’ – using CCS – in Queensland. The accompanying jobs and investment could be sizable.
Time to work together, stronger
The fact is no single technology – even sucking CO2 out of the air – can solve climate change alone.
Renewables like solar and wind will play an important role in electricity generation, while CCUS and hydrogen can help decarbonise existing, vital industries and large-scale dispatchable power generators, complementing renewables. But they, too, need investment to reach their potential.
For all these reasons, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends the best solution for the challenges we face is “combinations of new and existing technologies and practices”.
And it looks as though things might be aligning to make this happen. “Is CCUS possible? Absolutely yes,” says Zapantis.
“If the government creates the policy incentives in the same way that it’s done for renewables, then investment will come. And that’s now happening.”