Why the world needs more technology to reach net zero
A carbon-neutral future is in everyone’s interests. But we also need to keep the lights on. Low-emission technologies can help us achieve both goals.
- If the world is to reach net zero emissions, carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) will need to be part of the solution
- Renewable energy alone lacks the scale and consistency to support vital, energy-intensive industries
- Australia has the potential to be a world leader in the low emissions technologies that can get us to net zero
Deep beneath Barrow Island in Western Australia, CO2 is being permanently and safely locked away. The pioneering Gorgon carbon dioxide injection project is the largest of its kind in the world. Over 40 years, it is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 100 million tonnes.
This isn’t the first time Australia has taken a leadership role in decarbonising technologies. It was the first to prove carbon capture from a power station, and has identified a number of large-scale regions capable of storing billions of tonnes of CO2.
Around the country, and across the globe, there’s growing excitement about proven carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) projects like this, capable of stripping 90% or more carbon dioxide from millions of tonnes of industrial emissions – and finding innovative uses for it, too.
CCUS comes at a crucial moment. After some catastrophic forest fires, many Australians feel increasingly convinced of the urgency of a carbon-neutral future. Yet the way of life we enjoy still relies on hydrocarbons like coal and natural gas that have the muscle required to produce essential commodities like steel and cement.
It’s one of the reasons the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says emissions-capturing technologies like CCUS need to be part of the solution if we are to reach or beat our international climate commitments. Australia has the potential to be a world leader in this clean energy future.
The future is already here. Sip a glass of sparkling mineral water made by the Swiss brand Valser and the bubbles that pop in your mouth come from the air. They are CO2 hoovered up by the Swiss CCUS company Climeworks. It delivers the gas in liquid form to Coca-Cola-owned Valser, which uses it for carbonation, like any other CO2. The result is Switzerland’s first CO2-neutral mineral water.
To Mark McCallum, CEO of Low Emission Technology Australia (LETA) – the organisation that’s investing in CCUS projects to capture industrial emissions – projects like that of Valser and Climeworks are more than bubbles in a glass.
“Increasingly, people are realising that if we can actually make use of the CO2, not just store it, then it makes the carbon capture proposition that much more viable,” he says.
“The lion’s share will go to storage. But every molecule we can actually make use of in industrial processes, or turning into building materials and all sorts of wonderful concepts and processes, the more carbon capture we’ll have in the first place.”
The dream of whole buildings made from captured carbon dioxide is also moving closer, thanks to breakthroughs by companies like Cambridge Carbon Capture in the UK. It has developed a process that can turn CO2 emissions into a lightweight product that’s also resistant to both fire and water.
Storage at scale – of the kind that Australia is building – will be at the heart of the CCUS ecosystem. But is CCUS the right priority for the country?
It’s certainly right to confront the emissions challenge. Australians know how dangerous extreme climate events can be, after the devastating bushfires that burned millions of hectares of land. It’s why the IPCC says the energy sector, in particular, needs to decarbonise – and do it quickly. The question is how.
Could renewables do it alone? The cost is certainly falling, in Australia, as elsewhere. Wind, solar and hydro are playing an increasingly significant role in Australia’s energy mix. The difficulty, however, lies in scale. Although growing, renewables still only account for around 20% of Australia’s total electricity generation. Power from conventional sources like coal, natural gas and some hydro make up the rest.
The next challenge concerns the needs of industry. While considerable progress has been made in improving efficiency (it takes 60% less energy to produce a tonne of steel today than it did in 1960), vast amounts of power are still required. Sectors vital to the health of modern economies depend on the intense energy created by using hydrocarbons. It’s technically possible to make concrete and steel with renewable energy or clean hydrogen, but it’s very expensive.
The cost challenge is important. As well as climate problems, we are living through economic ones. PwC surveys show that executives in industrial manufacturing and automotive are among the most concerned about the global economic downturn, particularly its operational impact.
The way forward
The need to reduce emissions poses significant real-world challenges. But a pragmatic solution that bridges this gap is being championed by leaders from both the energy sector and climate science.
“The net zero challenge calls for a step change in technology innovation,” Dr Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, and Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) have observed.
These include “critical areas such as enhancing energy efficiency, making low-carbon electricity the main source for heating buildings and powering vehicles, capturing, storing and utilising carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere, realising the potential of clean hydrogen across many industries, and massively expanding the use of sustainable bioenergy.”
In other words, we need wide-ranging ambition, with technology at its heart.
Made in Australia
It’s technology that Australia is helping to establish. In the east of the country, in the vast Surat Basin, drilling is underway to determine whether carbon dioxide can be safely injected deep within layers of rock. According to a study by the University of Queensland, the site could have the potential to lock up around 13 million tonnes of CO2 every year, for a minimum of 30 years − the equivalent of taking 2.8 million cars off the road annually. Another scheme, the Callide Oxyfuel Project in Central Queensland, was the first to demonstrate that carbon capture technology could successfully lower emissions at coal-fired power stations.
And then there’s Western Australia’s Gorgon. It is forecast that this single scheme will reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project by 40% over the course of its lifetime. That would be the lowest intensity of greenhouse gas emissions of any LNG project in Australia.
“Why don’t we use our knowledge to clean up what we already have?” asks Mike Monea, a consultant who was formerly President of Carbon Capture Initiatives for SaskPower and in charge of the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture project, the world’s first power station to use CCS technology. “We have this capability now. But we need our governments to work with industry.”
As with any new technology, implementing CCUS isn’t easy. In America, there have been setbacks for plants linked to the oil industry as the price per barrel has fallen during the COVID-19 slowdown. Nor is low-emission technology cheap. LETA alone is investing $550 million into these technologies. But the economics are changing.
In the US, incentives have encouraged investment in the industry, scaling up plants. And with recent development, the sums are adding up in Australia, too. The government’s recent King Review into emissions abatement has outlined ways to encourage greater participation by, and investment in, heavy industries to significantly reduce emissions.
Meanwhile, the Federal Labor Party’s offer of bipartisan support for more technologies, including CCUS, to be able to access Australian carbon credits, is another important intervention that is levelling the playing field. Government and industry have a history of investing in technology together in Australia. Such a partnership provides strong foundations for growth.
“Historically, the challenge has been that large-scale CCUS projects have been expensive,” says McCallum. “However, the knowledge we gain from each project is significant, which is starting to make carbon capture far more affordable.
“There’s a lot of motivation for industries to start seriously looking at CCUS to remove emissions from existing operations and also unlock potential for the clean industries of the future.”
A mixed economy
The Paris Agreement on climate change sets out an ambition to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Energy Transitions Commission says this is “mission possible”.
There is a way to bridge the gap between the demands of the climate and the needs of industry and consumers. It is with the approach advocated by the IPCC: adopting “combinations of new and existing technologies and practices”. In other words, a mixed economy – accelerated.
CCUS has the potential to capture more than 28 gigatonnes from industry by 2060, according to the IEA. By capitalising on its early technological lead in low-emissions engineering, Australia can play a huge part in this.