Questioning Carbon Capture and Storage – State of the Planet (2023)

By Christopher Cadham

Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are over 400ppm, higher than possibly the last 25 million years. Carbon capture and storage provides unprecedented opportunities to reduce emissions from a wide range of industries and our fossil fuel dependent power sector, but we must consider some meaningful questions when deciding where and for what purpose we use this technology.

Carbon capture has appeared in the news a lot lately. In Norway the first carbon capture and storage project at a garbage incinerator is well underway. And in the United Kingdom, the government ended a £1 billion contest they were holding to promote the development of carbon capture and storage systems in the power sector. The contest, first proposed in 2005 and just six months away from awarding the prize money, was abruptly canceled by the government and buried in the November spending review. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent body responsible for advising the Houses of Parliament on climate change strategy, has warned that this will make the carbon-cutting goals agreed to in Paris harder and more expensive.

Currently, 15 major carbon capture and storage projects are active, with another seven nearing completion worldwide. Once all 22 projects are up and running, they will remove approximately 40 million tons per year of CO2. In order to make a viable difference in contributing to keeping warming below 2 degrees, the amount captured must be scaled up to the billions of tons per year.

Fossil fuel stopgap

The controversy in the UK is not the only one. In Mississippi, the Kemper County Project, a full-scale carbon capture and storage coal plant, has faced serious delays and even greater costs. The plant would capture 65 percent of the emissions from its 582 MW producing coal generators (approximately 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually) and pipe that offsite for onshore-enhanced oil recovery. The original project was supposed to be completed by early 2014 and cost $2.4 billion; instead, its price tag is currently $6.6 billion. To make matters worse, Mississippi Power has already had to repay $133 million to the federal government because it missed the original deadline. If the project is not completed by April 19, 2016, the company will have to return $234 million to the IRS.

But, with exorbitant costs, missed deadlines and lack of political support, why is there such a focus on carbon capture and storage? The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called carbon capture and storage a critical element in the plan to halt runaway warming. Any investment in this technology needs to be compared to the over $1 trillion investment into the extraction and transport of fossil fuels every year. The International Energy Agency predicts that investment in energy will be more than $48 trillion between 2013 and 2035, with $23 trillion of this being invested into fossil fuel extraction, transportation and oil refining.

This predicted investment underpins the International Energy Agency’s forecast that carbon-based sources of power are going to be the main sources of energy until at least 2030, despite the expected growth of renewables. With 1.5 billion people in the developing world currently living without power and that number rapidly shrinking, energy consumption around the globe will continue to skyrocket. Coal and other carbon-based sources of energy represent the cheapest ways for countries to power their electrical grids. Coal currently makes up 29 percent of the world’s global energy. While the European Union and United States shift away from coal, it is becoming an even more prominent source of power in Asia, most notably in India and China. Because of this massive reliance on coal, carbon capture and storage is seen as the best way to counteract the massive amount of emissions produced at these plants.

Saskpower, the provincial electricity provider in Saskatchewan, Canada has developed the Boundary Dam Project. This is the world’s first post-combustion, coal-fired carbon capture and storage project and will reduce CO2 emissions from the 115 megawatt generator by one million tons for $1.3 billion (CAD). Taking a critical approach, Ben Caldecott writes, “It would be hard to argue that resorting to highly uncertain [carbon capture and storage] prior to undertaking a variety of mitigation options would be an economically or socially desirable course of action.”

Necessary stopgap or delay tactic?

An additional problem arises when considering what to do with the carbon once it has been captured. Ideally, carbon is pumped into geological formations where it will remain. However, more than half of the operational or planned large-scale carbon capture projects expect to use their captured carbon for enhanced oil or gas recovery. While proponents of carbon capture and storage in power production see this as a beneficial way to help balance the budget of these billion dollar projects, analyses run by Grist and by Paulina Jaramillo suggest that the benefits of carbon capture and storage are outweighed by the increased consumption of fossil fuels that this provides.

Saskpower outlines some compelling arguments for advancing carbon capture and storage. Coal is cheap, plentiful and reliable, and the coal industry is not going anywhere. Projects like Boundary Dam allow this relatively cheap source of power to continue burning even with the rise in regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies also provide more time to transition away from fossil fuels. However, those who see fossil fuels as the enemy would argue that this does nothing to solve the bigger problem at hand. Instead, it just prolongs our dependence on fossil fuels.

The discussion reflects a schism that exists among environmentalists today. Many see carbon capture and storage as an attempt to extend the life of coal and increase the production of oil. They see the main purpose of carbon capture and storage as greenwashing the darkest industry rather than supporting a switch to renewable sources of energy that will not require carbon capture and storage. Other environmentalists who have been calling for carbon capture and storage for decades see it as an important move in the right direction. Still others say people have become so distracted by the attempts to reduce emissions in the power sector that they have forgotten the rest of the economy. The greatest promise of carbon capture and storage comes from integration into industry like the Klemetsrud incinerator in Norway or in conjunction with bioenergy.

Beyond fossil fuels

The Klemetsrud is a key development in that 60 percent of the 213,500 tons of waste it burns is made of organic matter, and by capturing the carbon produced from a natural cycle, it creates what is called negative emissions. Negative emissions represent a crucial opportunity to produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon. This has considerable implications for the energy industry. By using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in conjunction with a plan that aggressively develops renewables and cuts fossil-fuel emissions, a study in Nature Climate Change found that western North America could have a 145 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Yet, the notion that biomass emissions are truly carbon neutral is hotly debated. There are a number of underlying assumptions that can drastically alter these predictions. Despite this, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage represents an important tool in efforts to reach our growing demand for energy within a fixed carbon budget. The majority of integrated assessment model scenarios in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlight negative emissions projects, particularly the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, as an important tool to mitigate climate change. This technology allows for higher interim CO2 concentrations and long-term stabilization.

Carbon capture and storage also has a place outside the energy industry. Two large-scale industrial carbon capture and storage plants are expected to come online this year: one in Illinois at the Arthur Daniels Midlands corn to ethanol production facility, and one at the Emirates Steel plant in Abu Dhabi. At the Paris Climate Agreement, 16 of the largest cement companies backed a shift towards the use of de-carbonization technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

In her work on carbon capture and storage, Sally Benson and her co-authors write that the recent emphasis on carbon capture and storage to reduce emissions from coal power production is “too narrow a vision.” Debates like this one on carbon capture and storage are extremely important; there is a need to consider who is promoting certain mitigation strategies and why, but we cannot get bogged down by thinking of applications for one sector alone. Instead, we must consider how technological solutions can apply across sectors to help meet the climate challenge.

While carbon capture and storage for coal will and should continue to be hotly debated, it cannot be allowed to detract from the application of these technologies to industries such as cement, steel, waste management and biofuels. Despite the promise of carbon capture and storage for industrial applications, there is a continued lack of political will to support the high costs for development. Only time will tell if the UK will reinvest in carbon capture and storage for industrial applications.

Christopher Cadham is a MPHstudent at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and an intern at the Columbia Climate Center.

Read more from State of the Planet on the Earth Institute’s contributions to research and innovation in the field of carbon capture and storage:

  • At the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, researchers have worked on developing methods to capture CO2 directly from the air: 10 Reasons to Take Direct Air Capture Seriously.
  • Geochemists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are working with a power company in Iceland on a pilot project to pump CO2 underground: In a Melting Iceland, Drilling Deep to Stem Climate Change.
  • Lamont-Doherty scientists are studying rock formations in Oman that could hold the key to turning CO2 into stone: Ancient Rocks, Modern Purpose.


What is the issue with carbon capture and storage? ›

Carbon Capture Actually Increases Emissions

Due to the large amount of energy required to power carbon capture, plus the life cycle of fossil fuels, carbon capture in this country has actually put more CO2 into the atmosphere than it has removed. That's not an accident.

What are the weaknesses of carbon capture and storage? ›

The primary downside to CCS technology is the additional expense it adds to energy production and the unknown impacts of storage in the long term. Transportation of captured and compressed carbon requires specially designed pipes that are expensive to build.

Is the world ready for carbon capture and storage? ›

The study shows that CCS is now ready and available in all of the power generation and industrial sectors that need to be decarbonised, but that the current rate of construction will only deliver 10% of what is required to reach net zero by 2050.

How does carbon capture and storage affect the environment? ›

A rapid growth in carbon capture technologies — which remove and sequester carbon dioxide from the air — are critical if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Dramatically reducing current greenhouse gas emissions is essential to slow global warming.

What are the criticism of CCS? ›

They argue that CCS is inefficient, underperforming, and enormously expensive, while facilitating further fossil fuel development — especially when the captured carbon is used to extract more oil and gas. But CCS's critics aren't the only ones acknowledging the technology's shortcomings.

Why is carbon capture and storage not widespread? ›

Cost of Implementation. One of the most significant barriers to widespread deployment of CCS technologies is high cost. Although cost estimates vary widely, the greatest costs are typically associated with the equipment and energy needed for the capture and compression phases.

What is the downfall of CCS technologies? ›

The downfall of CCS technologies is that the cost of capturing, storing, and transporting the carbon dioxide is still too high to make them economically viable.

What are some disadvantages of carbon capture? ›

One major concern with CCS is that CO2 could leak out of these underground reservoirs into the surrounding air and contribute to climate change, or taint nearby water supplies. Another is the risk of human-made tremors caused by the build-up of pressure underground, known as induced seismicity.

How inefficient is carbon capture? ›

CCS projects typically target 90 percent efficiency, meaning that 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from the power plant will be captured and stored.

Which country is leading in carbon capture? ›

Canada and the United States are the highest scoring nations, scoring 71 and 70 respectively. The two nations represent most operating CCS facilities with 12 of the total 18 operating facilities.

Where is the most carbon stored on Earth? ›

Most of Earth's carbon is stored in rocks and sediments. The rest is located in the ocean, atmosphere, and in living organisms. These are the reservoirs through which carbon cycles.

Where is the largest storage of carbon on Earth? ›

The largest reservoir of the Earth's carbon is located in the deep-ocean, with 37,000 billion tons of carbon stored, whereas approximately 65,500 billion tons are found in the globe. Carbon flows between each reservoir via the carbon cycle, which has slow and fast components.

Is carbon capture and storage better than renewable energy? ›

Renewables are a better investment than carbon capture for tackling climate change. Summary: Solar panels and wind turbines coupled with energy storage offer a better hope for tackling climate change than trying to capture carbon from fossil fuel power stations, according to new research.

Can global warming be reversed? ›

Yes. While we cannot stop global warming overnight, we can slow the rate and limit the amount of global warming by reducing human emissions of heat-trapping gases and soot (“black carbon”).

Do you think carbon capture is a good idea? ›

Carbon capture is one of the only verified technologies that has proven able to remove carbon dioxide emission and greenhouse gasses from the air, and therefore – is one of the only available methods to directly reduce current carbon emissions rather than mitigate future climate change projections.

Is carbon capture greenwashing? ›

CCS was always greenwash for oil and gas production. Carbon credits for CCS for oil and gas production is greenwash on top of the greenwash,” said Polly Hemming, a carbon market specialist at the Australia Institute thinktank.

Is CCS a proven technology? ›

It encompasses an integrated suite of technologies that can prevent large quantities of CO2 from being released in the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels. It is a proven technology and has been in safe, commercial operation for 45 years.

Is CCS negative emissions? ›

There are two types of technology: carbon capture and storage (CCS), which as the name suggests captures and stores fossil and process-based CO2 at installations, thereby further reducing emissions, and negative emission technologies (NETs), which permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

What is the future of carbon capture and storage? ›

In 2020, the market for CCS technology was valued at around $1.9 billion. The CCS market is predicted to reach $7.0 billion by 2030, which would reflect a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 13.8% from 2021 to 2030. Climate technology has historically depended on the private sector to bear fruit.

What plant captures the most CO2? ›

Bamboo: THE solution against greenhouse gases

Indeed, thee bamboo absorbs 5 times more greenhouse gases and produces 35% more oxygen than an equivalent volume of trees! It has a very important CO2 retention capacity since one hectare of bamboo grove can capture up to 60 tons of CO2 each year.

What is the prediction for carbon capture and storage? ›

The global carbon capture and storage market size was accounted at USD 4.91 billion in 2022 and it is expected to reach around USD 35.70 billion by 2032.

Who are CCS competitors? ›

Top 10 Alternatives to CCS Technologies
  • Capital Numbers.
  • Trigma.
  • WeLoveNoCode.
  • Designli.
  • Vates.
  • Net Solutions.
  • Teravision Technologies.
  • Adastra.

What is the new technology for carbon capture? ›

PNNL's technique removes carbon dioxide at the source, rather than sucking it out of the air. The technique of vacuuming up existing CO2 out of the air is known as direct carbon capture, and is exemplified by the Swiss company Climeworks.

What happens to carbon after capture? ›

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.

Does carbon capture emit more than it captures? ›

However, according to a recent study by the human rights organization Global Witness, the facility actually emits more greenhouse gas emissions than it captures. Since 2015, it has prevented the release of five million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but it has also released a further 7.5 million tonnes.

What is the most efficient natural carbon capture? ›

Tundra is the most efficient per area as a large part of the carbon is stored in the frozen soil.

What is the most effective carbon capture method? ›

The cryogenic method used in post-combustion carbon capture is carried out using various methods. The absorption-based post-combustion capture is the most widely used method due to its efficiency and lower energy consumption.

Is carbon capture more efficient than trees? ›

In the US, nearly twice as much carbon dioxide could be removed from the atmosphere by 2100 through planting forests than through growing bioenergy crops and capturing the CO2 emitted when the crops are burned.

What plant is the biggest carbon sink? ›

Phytoplankton are the main reason the ocean is one of the biggest carbon sinks. These microscopic marine algae and bacteria play a huge role in the world's carbon cycle - absorbing about as much carbon as all the plants and trees on land combined.

Where does the US rank in carbon emissions? ›

China and the United States are the largest polluters in the world by far, having released 11.5 and 5.0 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, respectively. Despite being the second-largest polluter, U.S. emissions have declined by 12 percent since 2010.

What produces the most carbon on Earth? ›

Global Emissions by Gas

Carbon dioxide (CO2): Fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2. CO2 can also be emitted from direct human-induced impacts on forestry and other land use, such as through deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, and degradation of soils.

What are the 4 main stores of carbon? ›

Carbon is stored on our planet in the following major sinks (1) as organic molecules in living and dead organisms found in the biosphere; (2) as the gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; (3) as organic matter in soils; (4) in the lithosphere as fossil fuels and sedimentary rock deposits such as limestone, dolomite and ...

How long does carbon stay in the deep ocean? ›

This process takes place at an extremely low rate, measured in hundreds to thousands of years. However, once dissolved in the ocean, a carbon atom will stay there, on average, more than 500 years, estimates Michael McElroy, Butler professor of environmental science.

What are the two largest reservoirs of carbon on Earth? ›

The oceans are, by far, the largest reservoir of carbon, followed by geological reserves of fossil fuels, the terrestrial surface (plans and soil), and the atmosphere.

Is the ocean the biggest carbon store? ›

As the planet's greatest carbon sink, the ocean absorbs excess heat and energy released from rising greenhouse gas emissions trapped in the Earth's system.

Is ocean the largest store of carbon? ›

The total amount of carbon in the ocean is about 50 times greater than the amount in the atmosphere, and is exchanged with the atmosphere on a time-scale of several hundred years. At least 1/2 of the oxygen we breathe comes from the photosynthesis of marine plants.

What are the environmental issues of CCS? ›

What about the environmental impact of CCS? CCS can increase the water requirements of a power plant by anywhere from 56% to 90%. Together, CO2 and water form carbonic acid, which can leach toxic metals out of rocks. CO2 seeping into water supplies from deep underground has been shown to make water dangerous to drink.

What makes carbon capture and storage CCS impractical? ›

Capturing carbon dioxide is practical only for large, stationary sources such as power plants. Capturing carbon from mobile sources such as vehicles is not practical. It is also impractical with smaller point sources, such as home heating systems as they do not have as large an impact.

What is the difference between carbon capture and carbon storage? ›

So, we had to ask: What's the difference between carbon capture and carbon sequestration? Carbon capture is the trapping of carbon emissions just after they've been emitted but before they can enter our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is the storage of removed or captured carbon in various environmental reservoirs.

What are the negative effects of carbon capture? ›

There is a possibility that volcanic rock microbes can also digest the carbonates and hence produce methane gas which can be another problem. Another disadvantage of carbon capture storage is that it is not adequate to successfully deal with climate change.

What are the drawbacks to carbon capture and sequestration? ›

One major concern with CCS is that CO2 could leak out of these underground reservoirs into the surrounding air and contribute to climate change, or taint nearby water supplies. Another is the risk of human-made tremors caused by the build-up of pressure underground, known as induced seismicity.

What are the five major current environmental challenges? ›

These include pollution, overpopulation, waste disposal, climate change, global warming, the greenhouse effect, etc.

What is the success rate of carbon capture and storage? ›

CCS projects typically target 90 percent efficiency, meaning that 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from the power plant will be captured and stored.

What is the energy penalty of CCS? ›

We define the energy penalty for CCS to be the fraction of fuel that must be dedicated to CCS for a fixed quantity of work output.

What are the 2 main types of carbon storage? ›

The process shows tremendous promise for reducing the human “carbon footprint.” There are two main types of carbon sequestration: biological and geological.

What are the three steps in CCS? ›

It's a three-step process, involving: capturing the carbon dioxide produced by power generation or industrial activity, such as steel or cement making; transporting it; and then storing it deep underground.


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