GFZ Potsdam
GFZ Potsdam

The UN has warned large-scale deployment of technology that captures and stores carbon dioxide is needed to ward off drastic climate change.


The problem is, the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology remains extremely limited — and even where it is deployed, it's often not helping reverse greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In a report released Sunday, the International Panel on Climate Change says the world's current path of GHG emissions will result in "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."


While the panel outlines many GHG mitigation strategies that are necessary to combat this, its models are dominated by ones comparing what happens with and without the presence of CCS, as well as so-called bioenergy, which are sometimes grouped together.

Since it is likely the world will overshoot the goal established by the UN in 2009 of limiting global temperature increases to 2-degrees Celsius, the scenarios for dealing with the resulting damage "typically rely on the availability and widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century," the report says.

CCS works by sticking a processor into the exhaust stream of a factory. The device turns the CO2 into water, and "dry" CO2. The latter substance is compressed and put into a pipe or truck to either be stored in a rock formation thousands of feet into the ground, or repurposed for some other use.  CCS allows you to have "negative emissions," where you can grab the greenhouse gases you released and put them somewhere where they'll stop affecting the atmosphere. CCS is easier to use if it's removing CO2 produced from bio-energy, like trees and discarded crops for power. Here's a schematic of how the CCS cycle works:

carbon capture

If all this sounds expensive, it is. The newest CCS facility in North America, a plant in Saskatchewan that opened last month, cost $800 million. It is just the 13th-such plant in operation in the the entire world. China, the world's greenhouse gas emitter, has zero active CCS plants, although it is developing several pilot projects. Here's the map showing total CCS plants currently operating:

carbon capture map

What's more, the dry CO2 from the Saskatchewan plant will actually be used for enhanced oil recovery, a process that allows drillers to squeeze more oil out of a well. While this creates an economic incentive for increased CCS deployment, it also perpetuates fossil fuel use. And IPCC itself admits that incorporating more bio-energy will require massive reforestation campaigns.

“We’re lucky we have these commercial units at all,” MIT Technology Review quoted Gary Rochelle, a chemical engineer at the University of Texas, Austin, as saying of the Saskatchewan plant.


And yet, the IPCC estimates that the cost of mitigating climate change without widespread CCS use will eventually be 138 percent greater than what it will take to limit damage if there's a lot of it.

By comparison, deploying solar and wind would only reduce the cost of mitigating climate change by 6 percent. For nuclear, it's 7 percent. Here's the table:

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 10.14.04 AM

To avert disaster, the IPCC says, every source of fossil fuel will have to have a CCS device attached to it by the year 2100, and renewable sources of energy will have to surge to 80 percent by 2050, and 90 percent by 2100.

We have a long way to go.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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