Carbon capture and storage has been around for decades. But it has proven to be too expensive for commercial use. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was first used to capture carbon from industrial factories. Currently, about 20 commercial carbon capture plants operate around the world.
Supporters of the technology believe it could see a major boom in the coming decades. A report published by the World Economic Forum in 2019 noted that the global economy will double in size over the next two decades. But net emissions will have to reach zero by mid-century to reduce the pace of climate change. Many natural gas and coal power plants will still operate in 2050 if they run to the end of their lifespans. Carbon capture technology could help to reach zero emissions even while we continue to use fossil fuels.
In the United States, fossil fuels account for about 60 percent of power generation. According to preliminary figures for February 2021 from the EIA, natural gas accounted for 40.3 percent and coal 19.3 percent of generation. Even if most of the coal capacity goes offline by 2050, this would leave a significant amount of carbon emissions for capture and storage from natural gas. The first emissions-free natural gas plant came online in the U.S. in 2018 with a built-in carbon capture system to test its viability.
Critics claim carbon capture and storage is too expensive. They say that money would be better spent on developing renewable energy. But advocates believe reaching zero emissions with renewables alone is impossible. Many economic sectors can’t operate on electricity produced by renewables. The steel and cement sectors, for example, need very hot temperatures that only fossil fuels can produce.
The International Energy Agency believes that it can overcome the issue with cost. “There is considerable potential to reduce costs along the CCUS value chain, particularly as many applications are still in the early stages of commercialization,” the IEA writes. Market growth and new technologies will make carbon capture cheaper, according to the IEA. In addition, if “finance costs fall” and “economies of scale are reached,” costs will drop further.