Shrinking our carbon footprint can sometimes feel like we’re playing catch-up. Even as we try to reduce our production of GHGs—from lifestyle adjustments to industry-wide innovations—curbing the effects of global warming can still seem insurmountable at times. The reality is, change can only happen so fast. New technologies take time to build, and shifts in behaviour don’t happen overnight.
Fortunately, one tool to help tackle climate change is carbon capture technology—a process that prevents carbon dioxide (CO2) from entering the atmosphere. It has the potential to play a significant role in addressing climate change.
What is carbon capture?
Carbon capture is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a process that “captures” carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by an industrial source, such as a power plant, before it enters the air and can contribute to global warming.
The carbon is transported elsewhere to be stored or utilized. The process that stores carbon is called carbon capture and storage (CCS); while the process to utilize the carbon in other processes and products is called carbon capture and utilization (CCU).
How does carbon capture and storage (CSS) work?
Carbon is captured from an industrial source, such as a power plant or cement factory, and is compressed into a fluid. From there, it’s transported away for storage for a very, very long time (we’re talking thousands of years here). Wonder what kind of place can store something for that long? No surprise, it’s got to be sent deep into the earth.
The carbon is injected into geological formations located at least one kilometre below the Earth’s surface.
Once injected into the rock, the CO2 spreads throughout the formation and reacts with it until it becomes trapped. The most mind-bending part? That it needs to stay put for a minimum of 10,000 years to avoid impacting the climate. A recent study confirmed CO2 can, in fact, be securely stored underground for much longer — up to 100,000 years.
How does carbon capture help the planet?
There’s no doubt the world is transitioning to green energy at a faster clip than ever before, but we’re still burning more CO2 than the earth can naturally sequester. Because industrial processes are a big contributor, carbon capture technology is important.
In 2021 alone, global carbon dioxide emissions reached their highest level yet at 36.3 billion tonnes. Technologies like CCS and CCU, which prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere, could be an important part of the overall solution.
What are the benefits of CCS?
Is carbon capture and storage (CCS) really as good as it sounds? In many ways, yes! This process has the potential to significantly limit the amount of carbon released to the Earth’s atmosphere. Here are the key benefits of CCS:
1. CCS is a proven technology
The technology has been around since 1972 (starting in natural gas plants in Texas), and has already captured and stored more than 200 million tons of CO2 underground.
2. Storage is available across the globe
There are many locations around the world with the ideal geological formations to store carbon.
In fact, North America alone can store up to 20,000 billion tonnes of CO2 in geological formations.
3. CSS can reduce greenhouse gas emissions
The process can prevent huge amounts of CO2 from entering the atmosphere by helping high-emitting industries transition to near-zero emissions. That’s no small feat for Industrial sectors such as cement production, natural gas processing, and coal power plants that produce about eight billion tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.
4. It can help support economic prosperity
High-emissions industries can reduce their carbon footprint with CCS while continuing to protect existing jobs and the communities that rely on them. The world’s first CCS facility on a coal-fired power plant is in Saskatchewan, Canada. The SaskPower facility captures one million tonnes of CO2 per year—the equivalent to taking 250,000 cars off the road.
5. CCS shows promise for the near future
Research by IPCC indicates, in optimal scenarios, up to about 95 per cent of captured CO2 can be geologically stored by the middle of this century.
6. It can aid in the transition to green energy sources
In essence, CCS helps provide many industries more time to transition to green energy solutions. The process offers a way to mitigate the effects of climate change by significantly reducing the rate that CO2 enters the atmosphere without having to drastically cut production.
What are the challenges of CCS?
Although the technology has been around for some time, CCS faces some barriers:
The cost can be high
The cost to build the technology that separates, transports, and stores CO2 is high. Without subsidies or incentives to help develop the infrastructure, lack of funds may slow the pace at which industries remove and store their CO2 emissions.
The possibility of accidents or leaks
Accident rates in the transportation and storage of CO2 are low, however, if there was a leak in the pipeline or on-site, the high concentration of CO2 could pose a health risk to human life. Monitoring technologies are put in place to ensure the storage is developing underground as expected.
What is carbon capture utilization (CCU)?
Not all captured carbon is destined to rock underground. Some CO2 is diverted from storage and used in products, thanks to carbon capture and utilization (CCU). The demand for CO2 to make products isn’t new, but the ability to use carbon taken from a power plant is.
The CCU process has the potential to become a $1 trillion market by 2030.
While carbon storage is far more impactful than utilization in terms of reducing carbon emissions, re-using captured carbon offers one more way to help reduce the world’s carbon footprint. CCU also offers an incentive for businesses who rely on CO2 for their products to improve carbon capture technology.
What can captured carbon be used for?
Captured carbon is included in a variety of products. Carbonated beverages, for example, have long used CO2 as an ingredient. There’s now an opportunity to use captured carbon, rather than carbon that’s manufactured for the soda industry. Other products that include captured carbon are:
- Construction materials, like cement and concrete, asphalt, aggregate
- Industrial gas and fluids
- High performance materials such as graphene (did you know captured carbon is used to make your smartphone screen? )
CCU more closely resembles carbon recycling than carbon sequestration. Many products have a relatively short shelf life, so the CO2 will eventually return to the atmosphere. One exception is concrete, which offers a longer-term sequestration of carbon.
Carbon capture offers hope in tackling climate change
As the call to reduce our carbon footprint grows more urgent, new technologies are evolving in response. Tackling climate change will require more than just one solution, after all.
The more tools we have available to slash carbon emissions, the greater our capacity to limit the effects of global warming. Although carbon capture still has a long way to go in helping tackle climate change, it offers exciting promise for the not-too-distant future.
This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.