How Much Stock Should we Put on Carbon Capture?

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    Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is having a moment in the Nordics. At the start of May, Microsoft and Stockholm Exergi announced they had agreed to cooperate on “the world’s largest permanent removals deal to date”, “covering 3.33 million tonnes of permanent carbon removals from bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) at Värtan, Stockholm.” So, when the time came to decide the topic for this inaugural edition of the Future Surfer, an opinion column on sustainable technology, CCS seemed to offer itself up quite naturally as a target for my curiosity and natural scepticism.

    Admittedly, carbon capture is an issue where my curiosity takes a back seat to my scepticism. I have encountered CCS on occasion, and most of the time, I tend to be disappointed by the technical limitations still facing this technology. Moreover, CCS strikes me as a technology trying to outcompete an existing solution – reforestation. To put it plainly, let’s plant trees instead! However, what I lack in confidence in CCS, I make up for with nerdy science fiction enthusiasm. Growing up I remember encountering stories where, often in the background, there were flying machines hovering over cities cleaning the air – a mix between drones and vacuum cleaners. Of course, those stories mostly took place in post-apocalyptic dystopian worlds, but let’s put all of these prejudices aside and look at the facts.

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    The performance of trees

    Let’s start with the number to beat: How much carbon capture can be facilitated by trees? As it turns out this is a much more complicated question than it appears at first. The answer won’t just depend on trees. It depends on the type of trees, their age, the type of forest, the humidity, the local climate into which the trees are planted and the broader ecosystem in which they grow. UN figures suggest that in 2005, “North America had an estimated 118 tons of carbon stock per hectare (includes carbon in living biomass, dead wood, litter and soil). Europe had nearly 177 tons of carbon stock per hectare.” As of 2021, the EU had 160 million hectares of forest, whereas the USA reportedly has 304 million hectares, the fourth largest stock in the world. These figures add up to about 28 billion tons and 35.9 billion tons of CO2 for Europe and the US respectively. Meanwhile, 2022 saw total global GHG emissions of 53.85 billion tons. Hence, one year of GHG emissions is equivalent to over 80% of the stock of forests of the USA and Europe.

    The costs also matter. According to the Swedish forest authority, the “costs for silvicultural measures and pre-commercial thinning” amounted to SEK19,810 per hectare in 2022. Planting alone cost SEK6,140 per hectare. This might help understand why researchers have also argued that, because trees need to grow before they reach their peak carbon absorption ability, forest conservation is perhaps more important than reforestation. A tree can take 10 to 40 years to grow to maturity.

    Offsetting carbon emission by planting trees also attracts criticisms because of its potential to distract from emission reductions. Greenpeace points the finger at Shell, Total, Eni and BP, among others, and highlights that polluters often try to avoid decreasing their emissions by using carbon offsetting schemes that rely on planting trees. Like many others, they argue that reforestation and zero deforestation are part of a broader solution that should be conducted in parallel with a considerable decrease in fossil fuel burning.

    Carbon Capture and Storage in practice

    Going back to the Microsoft-Stockholm Exergy deal, the announcement suggested that the partnership was aiming for its facility to facilitate 3.33 million tons of permanent carbon removals from its upcoming BECCS facility at Vätan (due in 2027). Taking the figures above, this is the equivalent of 18,814 hectares of European forest, a little over the surface of Stockholm. Not bad, after all! Of course, these may be gross figures, not taking into account the emissions required to build and operate the facility. More importantly, Stockholm Exergy is part of a broader ecosystem of nascent CCS projects and its deliveries of the carbon removal certificates to Microsoft are planned to start in 2028 for a period of ten years.

    According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “around 40 commercial facilities are already in operation applying carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) to industrial processes, fuel transformation and power generation.” According to the same source, “since January 2022, project developers have announced ambitions for around 50 new capture facilities to be operating by 2030, capturing around 125 Mt CO2 per year.” So the average new project captures approximately 2.5 million tons of CO2 per year, just slightly below Stockholm Exergy’s own hopes. The IEA concludes that “even at such a level, CCUS deployment would remain substantially below (around a third) the around 1.2 Gt CO2 per year that is required in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario.”

    Capacity of current and planned large-scale CO2 capture projects vs. the NetZero Scenario, 2020-2030

    The IEA concludes that CCS is not on track to fulfil its promise and that “reducing project lead times, particularly related to the development of CO2 storage, will be critical to achieve those [NZE] levels”.

    CCS appears to be particularly appealing to the oil industry and to airlines, which are naturally polluting. But observers seem to fear that their relevance undermines other efforts and that the oil industry might be using CCS as a trojan horse. As recently as last year, Carbon Witness, an NGO focused on biodiversity conservation, warned that “Fossil fuel companies are using the carbon capture industry to infiltrate international climate talks and policy. Their approach isn’t subtle, but it is effective.” They warn that the disproportionate role of oil giants within Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and in the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) should make us wary of the technology’s promises.

    Explore but avoid the red herring 

    There’s a chance that I’m engaging in a bit of confirmation bias, but it seems to me that CCS is still too far and too much in the realm of science fiction. Trees still seem to rule the day, even if they won’t save the planet. CCS sound more like the cool research project on the side than the immediate solution. CCS remains a promising field though even if it seems to trigger the worst reflexes in our current climate transition paradigm. Much as reforestation efforts cannot be a panacea for decreasing CO2 emissions, CCS should not be used as a distraction from the real efforts that are needed for the energy transition.

    For now, the focus needs to be on decreasing fossil fuel usage and stopping deforestation. I am siding with IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol argues who says: “oil and gas producers around the world need to make profound decisions about their future place in the global energy sector. The industry needs to commit to genuinely helping the world meet its energy needs and climate goals – which means letting go of the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution.”

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