Carbon capture key to unlocking ‘unburnable’ fossil fuel resources

Refining Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) techniques would unlock the use of "unburnable carbon" as a viable energy source that would still keep the world on a 2C pathway if coupled with renewable energy, new research has suggested.

Research from Imperial College’s Sustainable Gas Institute (SGI) has claimed that in order to meet climate targets established in Paris by the end of this century, enhanced CCS technology should be utilised to enable “unburnable” fossil fuel resources to be unlocked.

SGI’s director, professor Nigel Brandon said: “This report shows us a way forward, which may enable us to continue to use fossil fuels as an important part of the energy mix, while remaining in the 2°C limitations. That said, we won’t get there unless there is greater support from governments for adopting CCS, together with more investment in improving CCS technology to reduce its residual carbon dioxide emissions.

“We hope that our review will encourage industry and governments to realise CCS’s potential in helping the fight against climate change, as part of a portfolio of investment in low carbon technologies.”

The concept of “unburnable carbon” – which first emerged in 2011 – argues that if all known fossil fuel reserves were depleted then carbon emissions would exceed the global carbon budget. But with 175 countries signing the Paris Agreement, the new white paper argues that fossil fuels could still be utilised in a low-carbon transition.

The white paper argues that if CCS technology – which has a capture rate of around 85% – could be enhanced to around 95%, up to a third more of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could be unlocked without exceeding the 2C goals established in Paris.

Policy gap

The research, which also calculated that global underground storage capacity for carbon could reach more than 31,000 gigatonnes, also revealed the barriers that would need to be mitigated in order to enhance CCS technology to a level viable for the report’s outcomes.

According to the researchers, the costs of implementing CCS would need to be regulated to become more commercially viable, while “major gaps” in the supply chain and policy arrangements – which has seen the UK scrap a £1bn CCS competition – would also need to be remedied.

While DECC is still suffering from the public backlash against the decision to scrap the CCS competition – which could add £1bn-2bn a year to the cost of decarbonisation throughout the 2020’s – industries are beginning to turn to carbon capture to lower emissions.

CCS techniques – which could “service many parts of mainland Europe” – are already being utilised by fossil fuel giant Statoil, which is carrying out feasibility tests at three locations on the Norwegian Continental Shelf.

With the cement and steel industries in need of an “urgent” introduction to CCS technologies, a “breakthrough” technology – backed with a €12m fund from the European Union – has been unveiled to help the construction industry reach ambitious 2050 emissions reductions targets.

Matt Mace

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