More than 120 countries have announced commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, or 2060 in the case of China and 2070 in India. These are positive and ambitious statements although it is unlikely that even if these targets are reached, they will prevent the average global temperature increase from exceeding 1.5℃, which is the aim of the Paris Agreement, made at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015.
Many of the net zero target announcements were made to coincide with COP26 in Scotland in November 2021. Each Party to the Paris Agreement has Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which spell out their individual targets to help limit climate change. NDCs are meant to be revised and strengthened every five years so that countries increase their commitment to climate change mitigation. As of December 2021, 127 countries plus the EU had submitted new NDC targets. At COP26 it was clear that the updated targets would, at most, limit warming to 2.4℃, so governments agreed to ‘revisit and strengthen’ their targets further in 2022. However, by August 2022 only 14 countries had submitted an updated NDC, two of which have not increased their ambitions.
This means that 179 countries have not updated their targets. And these are the main international commitments on climate change that countries make. Of the top ten greenhouse gas emitters, only Japan, Canada, the EU and the UK had legally binding net zero commitments, as of November 2021. So, although many statements of intent have been made, at the national level there are not adequate policies in place to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement.
Although the action at the international level is currently not sufficient, the IPCC and the IEA are among various organisations that have modelled pathways to achieve net zero by 2050. They both identify that carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) is an essential contributor to meeting this goal.
In the IPCC 1.5℃ report, almost all the scenarios require CCS. Three of the four Illustrative Pathways required 348 – 1218 GtCO2 to be stored this century. And in the 4th Illustrative Pathway which does not include CCS, final energy demand needs to decline by one third by 2050, compared to 2010.
In the IPCC Pathways, there also is a 60-80% reduction in coal use by 2030 compared to 2010 and a 70-97% reduction by 2050. In the IEA NZE scenario, there is a 50% reduction by 2030 compared to 2020 and 90% reduction by 2050. But the reality is that in 2019 there was roughly 2000 GW of coal capacity installed, with more than 500 GW of new capacity planned by 2030, with 200 GW already in construction. Bearing in mind that the economic life of a coal plant is 40-50 y, this means that in all probability coal utilisation will grow beyond 2030, rather than fall. So, CCS must be added to coal-fired power generation.
Work at the International Centre for Sustainable Carbon has shown that not only is 36% of electricity currently generated from coal, major industries also rely on this fossil fuel. They include iron and steel production, cement, aluminium and chemicals production, which are essential to economic growth and development. Emissions from these sectors can be reduced dramatically by efficiency measures and fuel substitution, but to approach net zero, CCUS must become more widely used. For example, of the 7.8 GtCO2 emitted from industry in 2017, around 1.9 Gt CO2 are process emissions. This means they are an inherent part of the production process, and so cannot be eliminated, making CCUS the only feasible option. According to the GCCSI, CCS must deliver 29 GtCO2 of emissions abatement in industry between 2017 and 2060 to meet the Paris Agreement objectives. CCS is also the most practical abatement method in various industries. For example, most steel is produced in blast furnaces in China which are around 12 years old. Considering the typical lifetime of a steel plant is 40 years, there is too much productive life in these units for them to be wound down. This is another reason to append CCUS to the plants, so they can continue steel production, but in a low-carbon manner.
Similarly in the chemical industry, the average age of plants worldwide is around 10-12 years, and they have a typical life of 30 years. CCS is proven. It has been used for 50 years for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and dedicated storage has been in place for 27 years at the Sleipner facility in Norway.
Investment in CCS is increasing rapidly. For example, in 2017, there was only about 60 Mt CO2/y capacity in operation, construction, or in early or advanced development. Whereas in September 2021, there were 27 projects operating, 4 in construction and 102 in various stages of planning, making a total of almost 150 Mt CO2/y CCUS capacity. Since 2021, more than 100 new projects have been added.
This increased momentum is due to several drivers, which can include the growing number of net zero commitments from both countries and companies, as mentioned at the start of this article, strengthening policy support for CCS, a growth in CCS networks known as hubs and clusters, the development of low-carbon hydrogen projects, technology-based CO2 removal and the creation of strategic business partnerships. For example, there are more than 30 hub and cluster CCS networks in development.
They offer the advantages of unit costs reductions through economies of scale, a reduction in the attendant risks through multi-party business ecosystems and also make smaller sources of capture feasible. CCUS is one part of the energy transition. There is also fast-growing interest in low-carbon fuels such as ammonia, methanol and hydrogen.
These can be produced from renewable electricity, or fossil fuels with CCUS. Due to the massive demand for renewable electricity, there may not be much to spare for the production of chemicals such as these. In addition, the chemicals are already in demand and produced at scale with fossil fuels.
So, at least in the interim, it will be more viable to produce them in a low-carbon manner, from fossil fuels with CCUS. It is certain that that the lowest cost and lowest risk pathway to net zero emissions will involve every emissions abatement technology including CCS.