What is carbon capture and why does it keep coming up at COP28?


The future of fossil fuels is at the center of the UN climate summit in Dubai, where many activists, experts and nations are demanding an agreement to phase out the oil, gas and coal responsible for warming the planet . On the other side: Energy companies and oil-rich nations are planning to keep drilling well into the future.

In the background of those discussions are carbon capture and carbon removal, technologies most, if not all, manufacturers are relying on to deliver on their promises to achieve net-zero emissions. Skeptics worry that the technology is being oversold to allow the industry to maintain the status quo.

“Industry really needs to commit to helping the world meet its energy needs and climate goals – which means removing this confusion,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said before the launch. That’s a huge carbon capture solution.” Talks.

What exactly is carbon capture?

Many industrial facilities, such as coal-fired power plants and ethanol plants, produce carbon dioxide. To prevent planet-warming emissions from reaching the atmosphere, businesses can install equipment to separate that gas from all the other gases coming out of smokestacks, and transport it where it can be permanently stored underground. can be done. And even for industries trying to reduce emissions, some are always likely to produce some carbon, such as cement manufacturers that use a chemical process that releases CO2.

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“We call this a mitigation technique, which is a way to stop the rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Carl Hosker, an expert on achieving net-zero emissions at the World Resources Institute, a climate-focused nonprofit that focuses on climate change. Supports fossil fuel reduction as well as a limited role for carbon capture.

The captured carbon is concentrated in a form that can be transported in a vehicle or through a pipeline to a location where it can be injected underground for long-term storage.

Then the carbon has to be removed. Rather than collecting carbon from a single, concentrated source, the aim is to remove carbon already in the atmosphere. For example, this already happens when forests are restored, but there is also an emphasis on deploying technology. One type captures it directly from the air, using chemicals to release carbon dioxide as the air passes.

For some, removing carbon is essential during the global transition to clean energy that will take years. For example, despite the significant advantages of electric vehicles in some countries, gas-powered cars will continue to operate well into the future. And some industries, such as shipping and aviation, are challenging to completely decarbonize.

“We have to remove some of the things that are in the atmosphere in addition to curbing emissions,” said Jennifer Pett-Ridge, who leads the carbon initiative at the federally supported Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, which is the world’s second-leading emitter of greenhouse gases. .

Many experts say the technology to capture and store carbon works, but it is expensive, and it is still in the early days of deployment.

According to the International Energy Agency, there are about 40 large-scale carbon capture projects operating around the world, capturing about 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. This is a small amount – about 0.1% – of the 36.8 billion metric tons emitted globally, according to the Global Carbon Project.

The IEA says the history of carbon capture “has largely been one of unfulfilled expectations.” The group analyzed how the world could achieve net zero emissions and its guiding path relies heavily on reducing emissions by reducing fossil fuel use. Carbon capture is only a piece of the solution – less than 10% – but despite its comparatively small role, its expansion is still behind schedule.

New projects are gaining momentum, but they face significant obstacles. In the United States, there is opposition to CO2 pipelines that transport carbon to storage sites. Security is a concern; In 2020, a CO2 pipeline ruptured in Mississippi, releasing carbon dioxide that displaced breathable air near the ground and sent dozens of people to hospitals. The federal government is working on improving safety standards.

Companies may also have difficulty obtaining permits. For example, this year South Dakota regulators, Rejected a construction permit For a 1,300-mile network of CO2 pipelines in the Midwest to carry carbon to a storage site in Illinois.

Technology to remove carbon directly from the air also exists, but its widespread deployment remains further away and is particularly expensive.

Who is supporting carbon capture?

The American Petroleum Institute says oil and gas will remain a significant energy source for decades, which means for the world to reduce its carbon emissions, rapidly expanding carbon capture technology “will drive clean energy use throughout the economy.” is the key.” Examining most oil companies’ plans to achieve net-zero emissions also reveals that most of them rely on carbon capture in some way or the other.

Biden administration wants more investment in US manufacturing as well as carbon capture and removal comparatively larger Spending compared to the rest of the world. But it is an industry that needs subsidies to attract private financing. The Inflation Reduction Act makes tax benefits more generous. For example, investors could get a credit of $180 per ton for removing carbon from the air and storing it underground. And the Energy Department has billions of dollars to support new projects.

“What we’re talking about right now is taking a technology that’s been proven and tested, but applying it more broadly and to those “Even in areas where the cost of deployment is high.” Carbon Capture Coalition, an industry advocacy group.

Investment is increasing. The EPA is considering dozens of applications for wells that can store carbon. And in places like Louisiana and North Dakota, local leaders are struggling to attract projects and investment.

Some environmentalists argue that fossil fuel companies are blocking carbon capture to divert attention from the need to quickly phase out oil, gas, and coal.

“The fossil fuel industry has proven itself dangerous and deceptive,” said Shay Wolfe, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

There are other problems also. Some projects have not met their carbon removal targets. 2021 US Government Accountability Report Only one of eight demonstration projects aimed at capturing and storing carbon from coal plants was said to have started operating at the time the report was published, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.

Opponents also say carbon capture could help prolong the life of a polluting plant that would otherwise shut down sooner. This could particularly harm poor, minority communities that have long lived near heavily polluting facilities.

He also noted that much of the carbon stored in the U.S. is ultimately injected into the ground to extract more oil, a process called enhanced oil recovery.

Hosker said it is essential that governments set policies that force less use of fossil fuels – which can then be complemented by carbon capture and carbon removal.

“We’re not going to say to Exxon, ‘Please, stop fossil fuel development,'” he said.

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