Removing carbon is just half the battle - we need to store it too
There is an urgent need to scale carbon removal methods. The IEA has outlined that by 2050 we will need 980 million tonnes of DACCS and 1.3 billion tonnes of BECCS if we are to have any hope of meeting our global climate targets. While the capture component of carbon removal is well established in carbon markets, the “CS” - carbon storage - of DACCS and BECCS is a less developed industry with storage value chains acting as a severe bottleneck to the scaling of these carbon removal methods.
There are many potential barriers to scaling. On January 26, BeZero Carbon published its new Scalability Assessment which sets out, for the first time, the barriers to scaling for carbon removal methods. For example, a technology’s reliance on land, energy, resources, finance and MRV are crucial for its development.
In the Scalability Assessment, storage is illuminated as an ever increasing issue for these technologies - such as direct air capture - reliant on subsurface geological storage and mineralisation. At present, a long list of direct air capture companies are emerging, but only a handful of storage companies are taking off.
Some removal companies are attempting to use captured carbon in the meantime for either novelty products like diamonds or vodka, low durability products like carbonated beverages, or for politically contentious uses such as in enhanced oil recovery or synthetic aviation fuels. Yet these utilisations will not help us in our pursuit of gigatonne-scale carbon removal, because they are not technically removal.
So why the mismatch? Shouldn’t there be companies putting carbon underground if there are companies taking it from the sky?
There are a variety of reasons. First, subsurface injection of carbon is expensive and has historically underperformed with technologies such as coal with point source carbon capture. Second, there might be a lot of capacity for storage, but identifying those places for injection is expensive and the rate at which we can inject carbon is uncertain.
Plainly, this is a market failure. Setting up an industrial project of any type, without half of the supply chain figured out, is a fairly unique problem for the carbon removal industry. You wouldn’t expect, for instance, a nuclear plant to set up operation without having sorted where their nuclear waste would be deposited.
This gap needs to be bridged by the private and public sector if we are to have any hope of hitting climate targets.
For private investors novel technologies like low-heat DAC may seem like more exciting opportunities, but the more boring and dirtier work of putting that carbon somewhere underground is just as, if not more, important at present.
For governments, they need to take the expertise of years of geological research and apply that to carbon storage research through public funding and permitting that favours permanent storage over exploratory drilling or enhanced oil recovery.
Carbon removal is scaling rapidly, as it needs to in order to reach dire climate targets. But, removing carbon is just half the battle - we need to store it too. The lack of carbon storage and mineralisation companies is alarming and it is time to bring storage up to speed as the rest of the industry grows.
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About the author
Garrett Guard is a researcher focused on carbon removal. Previously, he worked as a Research Analyst at BeZero Carbon, and at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy where he worked to build better representation of carbon removal technologies in integrated assessment models.