Carbon capture’s role in the energy transition

Although 2020 marked the largest decline in global CO2 emissions since the recession of 2007-09, the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere still reached a record high. The social costs of emitting carbon are only set to increase. Carbon-intensive industries urgently need to invest to become carbon neutral and maintain their license to operate.

As the world’s leaders gather at the COP26 Climate Change Summit this week, carbon capture is expected to come up in conversations about practices to achieve “negative emissions.”

We sat down with Jim Stian Olsen, CTO of Aker Carbon Capture, to get his take on carbon capture and the road to net zero. 

How will decarbonization happen? 

JSO: Decarbonization will come in three stages. We’ll begin with energy efficiency—the cheapest and lowest hanging fruit. Once we have exhausted that, we will move to renewable energy. Finally, since there are still emissions in the production of renewable energy, we will turn to carbon capture.

How are we progressing with carbon capture?

JSO: The International Energy Agency (IEA) said that to meet the climate goals, 9% of decarbonization needs to come from carbon capture. That is equivalent to 2,400 million metric tons of CO2. Let’s look at it in real terms: Aker Carbon Capture is part of a 1 billion Norwegian kroner project that will result in a reduction of about 400,000 tons of CO2. To meet the 9% IEA goal, you need 5,000 of these projects from now until 2030. That’s a couple of projects a day!

What do we need to do to ramp up carbon capture?

JSO: Currently we are working in an emerging market that doesn’t really exist and customers don’t really know what it is. This is challenging. And the biggest barrier we have for scaling is access to suitable storage. An ideal market would be one where we have access to infrastructure to deal with CO2, greater awareness about carbon capture, and advancements in technology that enable better collaboration and design. 

How far away are we from scaling renewables, hydrogen, and carbon capture to have a meaningful impact on global emissions?

JSO: It’s going to take some time before we see an impact from this. There are a lot of people pointing toward 2030, which is a fair assessment. It’s not uncommon to overestimate what we can do in two years, but common to underestimate what we do in 10. 

What’s stopping us from moving faster? 

JSO: It’s one thing to build a wind park in Norway, but if you look at the history of energy transitions, change typically takes 20-50 years. There has never been a single point in time in which we have relied on one energy source alone. To believe that we can be 100% renewable by 2050 is daunting.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a key part of the IEA Net Zero 2050 roadmap, showing a need for significant investment and capacity growth—1,300 million tons of carbon capture by 2030, 5,200 million tons by 2050. 

Do we need a carrot or a stick to accelerate decarbonization?

JSO: A bit of both. We need a global system in which the polluters pay. Right now, it’s still too cheap to pollute. As long as that’s the case, businesses and societies will continue to emit CO2. I also believe that a significant shift in consumer behavior will contribute to the rise of greener products and the boycott of industries with emissions, for example. 

The Global CCS Institute’s latest report shows 13 of the 20 industrial CCS clusters in advanced development are in Scandinavia, Europe, and the UK. Who do you think will be the leading country in CCS? 

JSO: I think that Norway is a good place to be. There is a lot of competence, and the companies that need it know about it already. From a scientific point of view, Norway is among the world’s best in carbon capture and storage. 

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