If derisked and proven, CCS technology is technically capable of capturing some 85-90% of total CO2 emissions, with the remaining residual emissions emitted into the atmosphere.
However, in a new review, researchers from the BG Group-backed Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College London argue that if these residual emissions could be reduced to around 1-5%, this would enable the world to unlock much more of its fossil fuel reserves, while staying within target limits for global temperatures.
CCS essentially catches harmful greenhouse gas emissions from factories and power stations and transports them via a network of pipes for injection into reservoirs kilometres underground where they should become trapped inside the microscopic pores of rocks.
The researchers found that CCS technology can, if refined, help the world use more of its “unburnable carbon” – a concept which first emerged in 2011 from observations that if all known fossil fuel reserves are extracted and used, then CO2 emissions would exceed the world’s carbon budget and have a significant negative effect on the global environment.
Governments agreed at the recent COP21 meeting in Paris to limit global warming to less than 2C, but to achieve this a large proportion of fossil fuels would need to remain untouched or unburnable.
Imperial’s researchers have developed models that predict the impact of CCS on the use of fossil fuel resources, assuming the technology continues to improve its capture rates.
The new report said CCS would need to be implemented globally alongside alternative low carbon sources such as renewable energy if climate targets are to be met in this century.
Imperial’s Professor Nigel Brandon said that with climate change one of the world’s most pressing issues, his researchers’ new report shows industry a way forward which may let the world use fossil fuels as an important part of the energy mix while staying inside the 2C limitations.
“Finding solutions that limit global warming, while enabling the world to make a smooth transition to a much lower carbon future, is paramount,” he said.
“That said, we won’t get there unless there is greater support from governments for adopting CCS, together with more investment in improving CCS technology to reduce its residual carbon dioxide emissions.
“We hope that our review will encourage industry and governments to realise CCS’s potential in helping the fight against climate change, as part of a portfolio of investment in low carbon technologies.”
Shell, which now owns BG, has been a major investor in CCS over the decades, but has found there are significant technical challenges to be overcome.
Previous studies exploring the impact of CCS on unburnable carbon have only considered a timeframe of up to 2050, during which time CCS would be expected to have a relatively small impact on the amount of fossil fuels that can be used.
The researchers’ new white paper extends that timeframe out to 2100, with modelling showing that up to a third more fossil fuel resources could be consumed globally than if CCS was not in use, while still remaining in 2C limitations.
Calculations up to 2050 show that around 3500 to 5000 exajoules could be consumed if CCS was implemented globally, but by 2100 this increases to 14,000 to 16,000EJ. The team says that is enough energy to power the US for 140 to 160 years. One EJ is equivalent to one quintillion joules.
Energy in the United States used per year is roughly 94EJ.
The total global underground storage capacity for CO2 was also calculated in the report.
The researchers estimated that there would be around 10,450 to 33,153 gigatonnes of capacity available. At current global yearly emission rates, this would equate to around three centuries of storage capacity for the world.
However, the team also identified a number of barriers standing in the way of realising the potential of CCS, including the initial costs of implementing the technology, the lack of market and regulatory arrangements currently in place, major gaps in the overall CCS supply chain including a shortage of skilled labour, and a cautious public perception of the technology all stand in the way of fully.
To address these issues in the short term, the researchers say more studies need to be carried out to refine CCS technology, while a raft of new policies also need to be implemented that support development of the technology.
They believe this needs to happen at the early stage when demonstration plants are being built and maintained right through to the application of CCS in a global mass market.