We need to talk about carbon capture

Huge opportunities for improved, scalable capture technologies

Carbon capture is a transition technology that is poorly understood, yet it has the potential to change our transition materially. And it isn’t talked about enough.

The recent spike in natural gas prices has been nothing but a wake-up call for Britons, many continental Europeans, Brazilians and Japanese alike, who depend on the resource to firm demand and supply in their energy grids. While there is talk of power price decoupling from gas prices in the future, the biggest question will be, how long that will take. The pundits and speculators are out with views, yet the truth is, nobody really knows.

Natural gas will play its transition fuel role. It will not be threatened by large scale battery storage capacity with its grid firming characteristics if applied when combined with renewable power generation. Nor will it be threatened by the advent of hydrogen which, while the talk of the town, is not yet established from a demand or supply side to any sufficient scale yet.

The reality is, even with the much lower emissions levels that we experience with natural gas power generation, there are still concerns over it is emissive properties. Why are we not discussing scaling CO2 capture technology? 

Natural gas emissions compare favourably when assessed relative to other feedstock sources (insert emissions relative emissions levels to oil, gas, diesel, wood pellets, other biomass sources that are subject to combustion or incineration). If principles of the circular economy have taught us anything. We should probably even think of not just sequestering the CO2 but re-using it as well. 

There are after all, a series of natural fits for CO2 in the food and beverage industry or in carbon black used for printer ink and other consumer goods. Beyond this, CO2 finds a home in a variety of industrial processes such as the production of bio-fertilisers and of course, cement. The latter is the primary ingredient in the manufacturing of concrete. Concrete itself, according to the Columbia University Climate School, is the second most consumed substance on earth after water. On average, each year, three tons of concrete are consumed by every person on the planet.

Yet, concrete is an inevitable part of the CO2 market especially since the demand for concrete is prone to grow with more infrastructure building being promoted around the world, catalysed by government funds and private capital. 

According to the Royal Society, the usage of CO2 in the manufacturing of cement is actually not a form of emissions but rather CO2 storage, due to the fact CO2 is trapped in the concrete for decades, and only released once the cement or concrete form is destroyed. 

This leaves food for thought. We point regularly to industries that account presumably for more than 5% of the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide like cement manufacturing, without the admission that it also stores CO2 very efficiently. One should consider not just the emitting nature of the cement manufacturing process but also its storage properties and assess the balance.

Nevertheless, one should recognise there are emissions. In all emitting industries, one should ask what the role of carbon capture or capture and re-use technologies can do. That could lead to outcomes that are vastly different, in the case of natural gas power plants, cement manufacturing or even smelting. If we can control our emissions through improved, scalable capture technologies, the applications could be vast and could dramatically change the landscape on the road to net zero by 2050.

Avatar

Natasha Turner

Natasha is global deputy editor at ESG Clarity, part of the Bonhill Group, and has been a financial journalist for six years. She has been shortlisted for Story of the Year and Investment Journalist of...