What is carbon capture and storage, and can it solve the climate crisis?

Carbon capture and storage refers to technologies that pull carbon dioxide out of the exhaust in smokestacks, or directly from the air, and either store the gas underground or convert it into a usable product. The technology has existed for decades in some industrial uses, like processing natural gas. Increasingly, however, many policy experts, scientists and fossil fuel industries say carbon capture and storage could play an important role helping to meet climate goals.

That may be true, technically speaking, said Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, but he is skeptical that the technology will play a significant role, at least within the electric power sector. The challenge, he said, is that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, remains extremely expensive.

Kammen pointed to President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching 100 percent carbon-free power by 2035.  “That means that really no new fossil plants can really be built,” he said, because new power plants last decades. The best opportunity for the technology, then, would be to retrofit existing power plants, “and that’s very unlikely, because CCS is not economically competitive today. It’s very far from it. And early retrying of fossil plants, and being replaced by wind and solar and storage is a far better economic deal.”

Much of the renewed interest in carbon capture in recent years has been focused on other uses. The technology could be used to remove carbon dioxide emissions from sectors without viable carbon-free alternatives, such as cement and steel manufacturing. Many energy companies say CCS could allow them to use natural gas to produce emissions-free hydrogen, which could be used as a fuel for transportation and heavy industry. Increasingly, some companies and researchers are exploring technologies that remove carbon dioxide directly from the air, though the process remains extremely expensive. Advocates have argued that governments need to fund research into carbon capture to help drive down costs, because every tool will be needed to limit global warming.

Kammen said these opportunities could play a role in the energy system, “but as a large scale climate solution I really don’t see it fitting in, because renewables and energy storage have progressed so dramatically that we’re really in a phase of closing out our fossil plants, not finding ways to basically give them life extension, which is effectively what CCS would be.” 

Nicholas Kusnetz

Ask Us a Question

Is there a climate science question that’s been bouncing around in your head? Submit your question to Climate 101 and we may be able to answer it for you.