Imagine being told that the ongoing pandemic could be outdone by the effects of climate change, simply because we think it’s just not that bad right now. Well, this is what Bill Gates alludes to in his recent Ted Talks Daily interview for his new book: ‘How to avoid a climate disaster’. A climate change induced catastrophe of that magnitude can conjure up post-apocalyptic images of our planet. Maybe of a robot rummaging through mountains of garbage, scavenging for remainders of a functioning planet once inhabited by humans. Disney Pixar’s WALL-E indeed paints a bleak picture of the future albeit with the very advanced AI. However, with the current situation, a decidedly negative future is very much possible. According to Gates, reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is essential to combat climate change. He also talks about one of the promising technologies to help us with that - Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS).
What is CCS?
The idea behind CCS is simple enough and self-explanatory: remove the CO2 before it reaches the atmosphere, and capture and store it indefinitely. CCS has been around for a while but has always been side-lined by its critics. However, it looks like CCS technology could take center stage in the coming years, with governments and organisations pouring money into it with the hopes of decarbonising industrial and urban spaces. Bill Gates himself uses the technology through Climeworks, a Swiss company that provides Direct Carbon Capture (DAC) solutions. DAC differs slightly from ‘traditional’ CSS technology as it is not only meant for industries and can be used in urban spaces too.
Directly removing carbon dioxide from the air almost seems like a quick one-stop solution to all our problems (climate-related only). In fact, the prospect of directly removing CO2 is so enticing that Elon Musk is ready to offer 100 million dollars for the “best carbon capture technology”.
The hurdles ahead
So why has such groundbreaking technology has not already got rid of our carbon woes? Well, it turns out there have been some ironic road bumps along the way like needing more energy and water supplies to power and support artificial carbon storage. Besides that, the complexity of distributing this tech in urban spaces is also a problem as the amount of CO2, say next to a shopping mall is much lower than that found near a steel manufacturing plant. Moreover, Carbon Capture Technology can be very expensive with DAC estimated to cost about $5.1 trillion/year according to Bill Gates.
Regardless, the UK government has incorporated Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) into its Clean Growth Strategy with hopes of becoming an international leader in this sector. The number of facilities in operation and investments into developing new ones have been quite unsteady but things are starting to look up as both the number of operating facilities and plans for new ones have increased in 2020, as shown by the graph below.
A bright future for CCS?
CCS technology’s not-so-great commercial performance so far in comparison to its competitors is undergoing a phase change with innovative research that gives it new hope. Innovations like the electro-swing cells which can help CO2 capture from ambient air are paving the way for decarbonising the world economy. Added to this are new solutions that can make CSS self-sufficient by using renewable energy sources to power the machinery needed. Maybe one may still wonder why CSS technology is even needed in this case as simply replacing fossil fuels entirely with renewable energy is much more efficient. However, with rising CO2 levels, we do not have this luxury, and scientists believe that active removal of CO2 is essential.
Needless to say, CCS may give us a firm foothold on the treacherous mountain we have to climb to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Just how treacherous can this be? Going back to Gates’ comparison to the pandemic; there are no vaccines to protect us against climate change. And even finding that required a lot of time, effort, and money, not to mention the chaos the world fell into. Strategies against climate change are what public health measures are against rampant infection, and the world has seen first-hand the consequences of measures taken too late. Fast, swift consistent action is needed to battle climate change. And amongst our arsenal of weapons, CSS technology could make a difference.