The role of carbon capture in deep decarbonization

Blog - Oct. 26, 2015 - By Duncan Kenyon, Binnu Jeyakumar

Shell Scotford upgrader and carbon capture facility, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Sept. 2014
Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

Technologies that capture greenhouse gases and either store or use them could play a significant and essential role in decarbonizing our world. But carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been a topic of debate over the last few years as governments, industry, environmental organizations and civil society navigate the considerations and implications of the technologies — something the Pembina Institute discussed in a recent backgrounder.

The role of CCS in decarbonization

Reducing carbon emissions at a global scale is undeniably a major challenge. To limit global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius of warming, emissions need to be cut by at least 40 per cent below 2010 levels by 2050, and to be near or below zero by 2100.

The challenge, as the International Energy Agency states, is that “the world must manage the legacy of its existing energy system, while harnessing established low-carbon energy sources and accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies that have yet to be adopted at scale.” Most of the pathways for reducing carbon emission, such as those modelled by IEA and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, include a variety of measures. These include efficiency improvements, increased renewable energy and reforestation, along with carbon capture for fossil fuels.

For carbon-intensive energy sources that already exist, or that are under construction, emissions are essentially “locked in” — the infrastructure has been built and will probably continue to be used. CCS is the only way that these extremely widespread fossil fuel assets can continue to be used to close to their full lifespan while taking action on emissions. It is also a critical measure for cutting emissions from sectors that do not have many alternatives in the medium term.

CCS is particularly relevant for four areas. First, it can be applied to coal-fired electricity generation in China and India, and also in the United States as their generation switches from coal to natural gas. Similarly, CCS has a role to play in emerging economies that have large fossil fuel reserves, and that are locking into economic and energy policies that virtually ensure the continued emission of CO2 well into the future.

There are also a number of industries with significant emissions profiles, but few alternative technologies at this time. These include oil and gas refining, as well as the production of fertilizers, steel, cement and petrochemicals. Doing what is possible to reduce their emissions is common sense.

And finally, bioenergy paired with CCS is one of the few climate solutions that can actually achieve negative net emissions and generate energy — it would actually remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. That clearly makes it worth exploring.

The scale of CCS deployment needed to decarbonize industries mentioned above is massive. When projecting pathways to a climate-safe future, the IEA predicts that we will need to capture 52 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from 2015 through 2040 in the electricity and industrial sectors. To put this number in perspective, the 13 large-scale CCS facilities that currently exist capture 28 million tonnes of carbon per year —less than one percent of what the IEA is calling for.

Key considerations

Before CCS can be widely deployed, several important issues need to be addressed. First, what level of carbon pricing is needed to incentivize CCS or carbon capture and utilization? This carbon price may vary depending on the industry that CCS is implemented in.

There are local environmental concerns to consider as. carbon emissions are not the only problem with fossil fuels. Whatever benefits CCS provides, there’s still the question of addressing the significant local environmental impacts — on biodiversity, land, water and air — associated with fossil fuel extraction.

And finally, we need to reconcile short-term measures with long-term goals. A balance needs to be struck between promoting CCS, which ultimately relies on sources of carbon emissions, and encouraging the development and deployment of other technologies that will make those emissions sources obsolete. Similarly, the threat of climate change necessitates some more fundamental societal, economic and political changes in how we manage our resources and energy systems — and those changes are not inherent in a CCS-based strategy.

At this point, Canada needs to articulate a comprehensive strategy that not only achieves significant carbon reductions through CCS, but is also aligned with meaningful action on climate change — in both the short and long terms.


Duncan Kenyon

Duncan is an energy policy expert with the Pembina Institute. He is based in Edmonton.

Binnu Jeyakumar

Binnu is the program director of electricity for the Pembina Institute. She is based in Calgary.


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