Is Carbon Capture the Solution for Climate Change?

David Harary, ERS, for Zondits

Catastrophic hurricanes, raging forest fires, flooding and drought. The last two months of summer have shown America glimpses of a new era of climate. The environmental, social, and economic costs of this problem are simply too high to turn a blind eye. Mitigating the adverse effects of climate change starts with reducing carbon emissions. That’s why carbon capture use and sequestration (CCUS) has come unto the spotlight as a potential solution.

CCUS technologies capture and contain wasted carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from sources such as fossil fuel power plants. The captured carbon is then either stored where it cannot enter the atmosphere (typically underground) or used for another industrial process. By storing or using wasted carbon, fossil fuel plants can theoretically prevent the release of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

On September 14, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions hosted a panel of Senators, business leaders, and experts on the recent innovations in CCUS technology. Four Senators on both sides of the aisle, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) have not only joined together to vocally support the further development of CCUS, but have co-sponsored a new Bill that aims to both support America’s coal industry and reduce carbon emissions. If enacted, Sen. Heitkamp’s FUTURE Act “would extend and expand the 45Q tax credit, which encourages the development and use of CCUS technologies and processes.” The enhanced tax credit also aims to bolster the adoption of low-carbon technologies that transform carbon emissions into useable products.

The debate on whether CCUS is a viable option to mitigate climate change has raged for over two decades. Proponents of CCUS technologies often cite its ability to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere by 80-90%. A 2013 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that CCUS can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050 to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. However, this reduction also comes at a significant cost. The process of carbon capture, transportation, storage, and use are highly energy intensive and require substantial infrastructure. Furthermore, CO2 leakage is a major concern with CCUS. For sites that are well-selected, designed and managed, the IPCC estimates that risks of CO2 leakage are comparable to those associated with current hydrocarbon activity. This finding is also hotly contested as empirical data on the long-term storage of carbon is not available.

A 2011 review of several life-cycle assessments on CCUS showed the technology does in fact reduce net global warming potential, but often at the expense of other environmental costs, such as fresh-water eutrophication and toxicity potentials. The process of weighing the pros and cons of large-scaled CCUS across the environmental, social, and economic spectrums easily gets muddled in complexity. The debate on whether this technology is beneficial overall is far from over.

The new Bill that is co-sponsored by 24 Senators hopes to further reduce at least the economic costs of CCUS. Enhanced tax credits that incentivize the adoption of CCUS offer both parties an opportunity to support jobs and reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Among those on the panel, many agreed a universal price on carbon is the most necessary step towards addressing climate change. Fortunately, there is greater consensus among scientists and economists on the benefits of carbon pricing than on CCUS. Whether recent campaigns to carry out this policy are successful has yet to be determined.