Momentum for climate action has surged since the Paris Agreement in December, with increased investment in clean, renewable energy and new energy technologies. But will the Agreement give a needed boost to carbon capture and storage? Known as CCS, this suite of technologies aims to keep climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, acting as a bridge to a lower-carbon future.

To reach that future, national commitments to reduce emissions and increase public and private funding for research and development could help move CCS forward. Along with global deployment of renewable energy, CCS has the potential to cut emissions from fossil-fueled power sources and energy-intensive industry. Ten countries made CCS part of their climate commitments in the run-up to the Paris climate meeting, including key CCS players such as China, Canada and Saudi Arabia, along with less developed countries like Malawi, which expressed interest in the technology conditional on economic feasibility. In addition, the Paris conference saw the launch of a CCS development and deployment roadmap for China, a paper outlining the role of CCS in the climate change mitigation portfolio of a coalition of environmental organizations, and a report that highlights CCS in its call for increased climate action over the next five years.

Increasing support for carbon pricing from private companies, national governments and international organizations could also support the fledgling CCS industry by using funds collected from putting a price on emissions to help pay for carbon capture and storage, and ultimately making carbon expensive enough to incentivize wider CCS use. Another encouraging sign for CCS is the commitment by 20 countries, known as Mission Innovation, to double public funding for clean energy research and development over the next five years.

Projections vs Reality

CCS technology plays an important role in recent emissions-reduction models: the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that carbon capture and storage will account for 13 percent of global emissions reductions by 2050, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates it will be difficult to meet emissions-reduction targets without CCS. Further, the Paris Agreement’s recognition that keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels would reduce the worst impacts of a changing climate adds urgency to calls for CCS development.

While optimism about carbon capture and storage was strong in the early 2000s, deployment since the 2008 financial crisis has been slower than anticipated. According to the Global CCS Institute, an international membership organization that supports CCS development, there are currently 15 large-scale CCS projects in operation, capturing 28 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. The United States leads on this front, followed by Canada, Norway and a few others, but a number of projects in the advanced stages of planning are shifting the future of CCS development to China. In the 2014 U.S.-China Joint Announcement on climate change, China committed to building its first large-scale integrated CCS demonstration project by around 2020, which aims to capture and store one million tons of carbon dioxide annually; they also have a number of smaller projects in the pipeline.  

By the end of 2017, seven more large-scale projects are set to come on line, which would bring the global total to 22 and increase the carbon captured annually to around 40 million tons. While significant, this amount is nowhere near what is needed to reach the IEA’s numbers by mid-century: 2 billion tons stored per year in 2030 and up to 7 billion tons in 2050. Reaching these ambitious targets 15 and 35 years down the road requires laying the groundwork now.     

A few important barriers have hindered wider CCS deployment. Higher initial capital costs compared to other clean energy technologies and the risk of project failure have discouraged public and private sector investment. Another hindrance is the perception that CCS applies only to power generation and is sometimes seen as a proxy for continued coal use. However, CCS can be used outside the power sector in industrial processes that lack any emissions-reduction alternatives, or in bioenergy or manufacturing. Lastly, while many countries are developing CCS technology, a more coordinated global approach would help accelerate this process. WRI has been playing a leading role in facilitating cross-border CCS technology collaboration through its role in the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center Advanced Coal Technology Consortium.

Looking ahead, a gap remains between the current path toward CCS deployment and the path that would allow CCS to achieve 13 percent of emissions reductions outlined for 2050. Language included in the Paris Agreement to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” implies a dramatic increase of renewable energy along with concurrent expansion of carbon sinks, such as forests and carbon capture and storage. CCS technology will only be able to contribute such a large slice of the emissions-reduction pie if project development, demonstration and deployment accelerates. In turn, this type of acceleration would benefit from stronger collaboration among CCS technology leaders.