Carbon Capture Technology- boon or bane?
By Maitri Patel
Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk recently launched the XPrize Carbon removal competition to create devices that can sequester carbon dioxide to reduce the impact of climate change. The four-year competition will have a prize fund of $100 million. Carbon Capture and Storage is a technology that attempts to prevent large quantities of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels in power generation and other industries. It is often regarded as a means of mitigating the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming. It captures the co2 either at the source of the emission like various industries or it can capture co2 directly from the air.
The world emission is not going to reduce only by renewable sources of energy because of two reasons. The speed of renewable adoption is not sufficient and there are other major sources of co2 emission apart from the energy industry. The International Energy Agency warned that it would be “virtually impossible” for the world to hit climate targets without capturing and storing emissions generated from factories, power plants, transportation and other sources. The transition to renewable energy, such as solar and wind, would not cut emissions in time, the IEA said. Studies have shown that Carbon Capture and Storage has the most significant impact on reducing emissions.
Types of technology
This broad sweep of technology can be split roughly into two types — air conditioner-like machines that can suck CO2 directly from the air; and infrastructure that captures emissions at source and stores them.
Carbon capture technology which is used at the source of emission has mostly industrial applications. However, technologies are being developed to capture vehicular emission at the source. Direct air capture technologies have vast applications as they suck co2 directly from the air so that it can capture co2 which cannot be captured at the point source and co2 which is already in our atmosphere.
Where to store?
The captured carbon has to be stored somewhere. The most popular storage process is called geological sequestration where the captured carbon is stored underground into the rock formations. Other methods for storage includes sinking it deep below the ocean, pumping it into volcanic rocks, turn it into synthetic fuel and other industrial applications like raw material to some industries.
It is possible that the underground stored co2 can leak into the atmosphere in large quantity. No one knows the environmental impact of geological sequestration as the co2 is stored in supercritical fluid and should be maintained at the temperature excess to 31.1 ℃ and pressure excess to 72.9 atm. Similarly, other methods like sinking it deep below the ocean are not yet tested and the impact on marine life is unknown. Therefore, the bigger question that the scientific community is facing, is not how to capture but what to do after the capture?
Challenges and controversies
Scaling up is one of the most important challenges this industry is facing technologically. Many successful experiments for source capture either do not have the capacity to scale up or do not have finances for scaling up. Private players are becoming interested in the technology but it seems that political will is not backing up the technology yet.
Carbon capture is a controversial idea, attacked as a costly distraction from stopping emissions occurring in the first place. Many environmentalists are not keen on an idea that would burnish the green credentials of fossil fuel companies by installing carbon capture technology on power plants. “Carbon capture and storage is not a solution to the climate crisis, it is part of the problem,” said Karen Orenstein, the climate and energy program director at Friends of the Earth. “This extraordinarily expensive pipe dream is just false rhetoric propagated by the fossil fuel industry in an attempt to save itself.”
Carbon capture technology in policy space
International agencies and agreements not only mentions carbon capture technology but emphasis having them as one of the main mitigating technology. International Energy Agency mentioned in its report that this technology will contribute 20% annual reduction in emission by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that without the application of this technology, reducing the 2 ℃ goal will cost 140% more. Almost 10 countries of the world have highlighted this technology as one of the major emission mitigation strategies for meeting their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The technology has not yet in the focus in India, neither in the technological space nor in the policy space.
Innovation in carbon capture technology is gaining traction as more and more rich people investing in research for this technology. However, there are many unanswered questions that need to be addressed before we consider this technology as a mitigation strategy. Is the technology targeting cause of the climate crisis or its symptoms? Are we willing to bet on the technology that is not yet matured enough? Will it anchorage the fossil fuel industry to consume more? Can we rely on the technology which is not yet ready to use in developing reduction targets? All these questions should have a clear answer before we include carbon capture technology as one of the policy measures for emission reduction.