If you’re following climate news you may hear a lot of terms focusing on carbon, like “decarbonization,” “carbon neutral,” “carbon capture.” Well, there’s a good reason for it: Carbon dioxide accounts for 76% of the greenhouse gasses we’re putting into our atmosphere. To stop the worst impacts of climate change, scientists agree that we need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.
Governments, private companies, and nonprofits are tackling this problem in a number of ways, from protecting forests that absorb carbon in the atmosphere to reducing our emissions with clean energy like we do at OhmConnect. But another solution caught my attention when I learned that governments are investing billions of dollars into it: Carbon capture.
Here’s what we know so far about this emerging technology, where it’s used, and how close it can get us to achieving our climate goals.
Carbon capture is the process of trapping this carbon dioxide, then transporting it and storing it.
When we burn fossil fuels we create carbon dioxide. While it would be extremely challenging to capture carbon that’s spread out across our entire atmosphere, if we trap it at the moment it’s created – like at a gas power plant or steel foundry – we can prevent it from releasing into the air in the first place.
I like to think of it like covering your face when you sneeze. Covering your mouth and nose with your elbow prevents bacteria from escaping into the air in a room and getting other people sick. The bacteria gets trapped on your clothes to be put in your next load of laundry.
After we capture the carbon, it’s often liquified and then injected into the earth to a depth of half a mile under the ground. This distance is needed to keep the carbon at a temperature that makes it ideal for storage.
The International Energy Agency reports that there are about 40 commercial capture facilities in operation globally, capturing 45 mega-tons of CO2 each year. North America is home to most carbon capture facilities right now, but Europe in particular has announced big plans to increase capacity over the next decade.
When I first heard about carbon capture I pictured a giant air filter, sucking up carbon from all human activity. While it’s a fun image, most projects right now aren’t capturing carbon directly from the air.
Groups using carbon capture are heavy industries like gas processing. In the next decade as we produce different kinds of energy, it’s estimated that the big users of carbon capture will be hydrogen production, power generation, and cement and steel makers.
Government investment and policies can incentivize carbon capture projects, but they’re operated by private companies that own the plants releasing the carbon – like Exxonmobil, BP, and Shell. The largest carbon capture plant is currently the Century Gas Processing Plant in Texas, and can absorb 8.4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Capturing carbon is undoubtedly better than releasing it into our atmosphere – and it could enable other clean solutions. Here are a few reasons carbon capture is attracting so much attention and investment from governments:
If that all sounds great to you, then you may be wondering if we can rely on carbon capture to fix our emissions problem. The short answer is no.
Carbon capture doesn’t actually move us away from fossil fuels – it allows us to keep using them. If we put all of our attention on this strategy, we wouldn’t invest in clean energy alternatives that are critical to stopping greenhouse gas emissions.
And how do we know that those other alternatives are needed? According to data from IEA, projects that are focused on capturing carbon simply can’t get us all the way to our net zero emissions goals. The yellow bar in the graph below shows the difference between what carbon capture could help us accomplish, and where we need to be by 2030.
That’s quite a gap! So while carbon capture is a great tool in our toolbox, we need to continue to increase renewable energy, protect ecosystems, and do whatever we can as individuals to help reach our goals. That’s where we at OhmConnect come in, sign up to learn how you can lower your impact at home.