Carbon Capture – What is It, and Can it Solve Our Climate Woes?

This article is part of MACo’s Deep Dive series, where expert analysts explore and explain the top county issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Deep Dives.

Long-time readers of Conduit Street will know that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. From more violent weather patterns to rising sea levels, Maryland is being forced to contend with the consequences of fossil fuels in very tangible ways. Carbon capture technology may offer an avenue to heal the planet while still transitioning toward renewable energy.  

What is Carbon Capture?  

The term “carbon capture” is shorthand for “carbon capture, usage and storage” or (CCUS). CCUS can be broken down into three stages: removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere or point sources (i.e., industrial operations, power generation, etc.), reusing CO2 in industrial processes, or diverting removed CO2 to long-term storage. Depending on the operation, CO2 can be reused at the point source, transported to different facilities, or injected deep into the group for long-term storage.  

Where is CCUS Used?  

Due to cost, CCUS is almost entirely used in industrial operations. Most point-source CCUS facilities can capture close to 90% of the CO2 they’re emitting, but that number can be expected to improve as investment in the technology has been increasing (London School of Economics). CCUS facilities can also remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere, but direct atmospheric removal is significantly more expensive as concentrations are considerably lower compared to point sources.  

Earlier this summer, the US Department of Energy (DOE) unveiled a $1.2 billion investment in CCUS technology through the Regional Direct Air Capture (DAC) Hubs program. The program aims to kickstart a nationwide network of large-scale carbon removal sites to address legacy carbon dioxide pollution and complement rapid emissions reductions. Two sites in Texas & Louisiana are each expected to remove 1 million metric tons of CO2 annually. This investment is part of a national goal of removing between 400 million and 1.8 billion metric tons annually by 2050.  

Looking forward, DOE has selected 19 sites to explore establishing additional CCUS facilities, the closest of which is in Washington, DC. Most of the other sites are located west of the Mississippi River.  

Can Carbon Capture be Effective in Reducing Climate Change?  

Most climate scientists agree that further development of CCUS technology is critical in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, but CCUS alone cannot solve the climate crisis. The technology can help abate the carbon emissions of heavy industries such as the production of cement, steel, iron, and chemicals, as well as electricity production. As things currently stand, the global community needs to significantly increase the deployment of CCUS technology as insufficient capacity remains to meet any climate goals.  

It is also worth noting that the broad deployment of CCUS technology does not mean that there should be a less vigorous push for electrification. This technology will not reduce emissions from transportation or heating. It is more realistic to envision an all-electric future, where some electricity may be generated from renewable sources, and some from fossil fuel facilities outfitted with CCUS systems.  

Closing Thoughts   

CCUS will clearly be a part of a multipronged approach to reducing the worst impacts of climate change, but this technology alone will not be a silver bullet. The climate crisis was not created in a day nor by a single actor; the solutions to this crisis will also be multipronged and take time to be impactful.