Carbon capture technology: climate solution or COP-out?

While carbon capture and storage technology divides the crowds, COP28 ramped up discussion on the topic and Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods argues its case

Governments at previous climate talks agreed to ‘phase down’ the use of unabated coal, but the talks at COP28 have been split on the future of fossil fuels.

The debate focuses on whether to prioritise technology to abate, or capture emissions, or to focus on accelerating the shift to renewable energy.

Climate science has spoken. Removing the carbon emissions that we have already pumped into the atmosphere is necessary if we are to avoid the 1.5-degree rises in global temperature set out in the Paris Agreement.

When it comes to solutions, carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) divides the crowds.

CCS involves the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial processes, such as steel and cement production, or from the burning of fossil fuels in power generation. This carbon is then transported from where it was produced, via ship or in a pipeline, and stored deep underground in geological formations.

While many oil and gas producers see it as key in the transition, other world leaders say it is too risky and yet to be proven – not to mention, expensive.

Perhaps, that explains why the technology has received little attention or finance in the past, but was thrust into the spotlight ahead of COP28 UAE – with the International Energy Agency (IEA) releasing a report saying the fossil fuel industry was facing a “moment of truth”.

The report criticised oil and gas companies that say they can continue drilling as long as emissions are cleaned up, and using wide-scale carbon capture to fight climate was an “illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture was the solution”. 

This claim has been refuted by Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods who in a statement argues that what is said about carbon capture today, you could say about EVs and solar panels not so long ago.

Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods has announced US$17 billion of investment in its low carbon businesses, including carbon capture

Carbon Capture technology nascent – but potential

Let’s look at EVs, and then consider the current situation with carbon capture.

According to analysis from IEA, in 2016 (a year after the Paris Agreement was signed), the global sales of electric vehicles was around 700,000 units. In 2022, that was 10.3 million. This year, it should peak at 14 million – 20 times the 2016 total.

Before we get carried away with the potential ‘silver bullet’ of carbon capture, it’s important to recognise that we are talking about a technology very much in its infancy. That silver bullet is being fired from a water pistol rather than a Smith & Wesson. 

The 2022 winner of the renowned Earthshot Prize – launched by Prince William in 2020 to search for and scale the most innovative solutions to the world’s greatest environmental challenges – hails from Oman, and attended COP28 at near neighbour the UAE.

Named after the molecular weight of carbon dioxide, 44.01 removes CO2 permanently by mineralising it in a rock called peridotite. This rock is found in Oman, which has the highest concentration in the world, and also around the globe, from America to Asia.

This mineralisation happens naturally, but pumping carbonated water deep underground into peridotite can speed up the process and capture carbon.

This is not carbon storage, which simply buries CO2 underground, mineralisation removes CO2 for good. But here’s the kicker – 44.01’s first project mineralises just 1,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. By expanding operations internationally, the company hopes to mineralise a billion tonnes of CO2 by 2040.

That’s not bad at all, when you consider a recent Oxford University-led report estimated that 2 billion tonnes are removed from the atmosphere each year – primarily from forests and with new tech solutions accounting for only 0.1% of that total.

Although 2 billion tonnes is being removed, some 36 billion is being added.

The European Union – widely regarded as a leader when it comes to climate action – has set a target to store 50 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030. In 2022, the EU’s total CO2 emissions were close to 2.4 billion tonnes, according to Eurostat.

Other solutions include Direct Air Capture (DAC), with the most high-profile company being Climeworks in Iceland. The technology, as the name suggests, sucks the CO2 out of the air – but atmospheric air only contains 0.04% CO2. However, the technology is proven, and while costs right now are high (estimated at up to US$1,000 per tonne), it is expected that they will come down significantly. 

And they would need to. According to a recent report from BCG, prices would have to fall below US$200, and ideally closer to US$100 per tonne if DAC has a meaningful role to play.

Going back to the comments from Exxon Mobil CEO Woods, that cost reduction would be similar to the solar PV cost reductions we have seen.

But what price do we put on climate change? 

Exxon has announced US$17 billion of investment in its low carbon businesses – including carbon capture – showing on the sidelines of COP28 that oil and gas companies are keen to be seen as part of the solution.

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