The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its long-anticipated Action Plan last week, providing a pathway and policy recommendations for reducing emissions to net-zero by mid-century and prevent the worst effects of climate change. With the inclusion of carbon capture technologies as able “to drastically reduce pollution from multiple industry subsectors by capturing emissions associated with both energy use and chemical processes” the report echoes recent conclusions from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UK Committee on Climate Change (UKCCC) and others. The United States is currently a leader in carbon capture deployment, and has more than 30 facilities in planning, thanks to the most progressive CCS-enabling policy framework in the world. The Action Plan provides further suggestions to optimize these policies with the potential to strengthen US technology leadership while highlighting the role and importance of innovation for effective climate action:
- A shift in thinking to drive cross-cutting innovation and decarbonization, marrying programs and responsibilities for industry, transportation, and power decarbonization. In an ideal world, climate targets would dictate a holistic policy framework guiding and coupling the decarbonization of high-emitting sectors. Such an approach allows for the deployment of decarbonization technologies across sectors in the most efficient way possible. With regards to carbon capture, the report acknowledges its versatility of application, able to reduce emissions from industrial facilities, fossil-fuel power plants, and fuel production, as well as its crucial role in reducing emissions through the production of hydrogen.
- The need for innovation rises with climate ambition. According to the modeling results based on a subset of the plan’s recommendations, the plan would set the country on a path to achieving 88% emissions reductions below 2010 levels by 2050, with 12% emissions remaining in industry, heavy-duty, and off-road transport. However, according to a recent IEA report, only a quarter of cumulative emissions reductions is expected to come from currently mature technologies through 2070, and a whopping 41% is expected to be delivered by technologies not yet deployed at scale. For example, if we fail to scale carbon capture technologies in the near-term, it could hamper their impact in the cement sector, with potentially far-reaching, negative consequences for the climate in the future. Due to limited alternative options decarbonized cement production is highly dependent on the demonstration and deployment of carbon capture today. Hence, the near-term use of advanced decarbonization technologies is essential, and policy frameworks must be created to continuously bolster innovation to improve the chances of reaching climate goals.
- Technology outcomes are unpredictable, but we can control the policy frameworks we use for scaling technologies. For a proven, yet not widely available set of technologies like carbon capture, strong policy support is necessary to bring it to scale. The report recommends a variety of priorities that could bolster the near-term deployment of carbon capture facilities, including the optimization of the 45Q tax credit through a direct pay option and extending the commence-construction deadline, currently set for the end of 2023. As a result of 45Q and other policies, there are more than 30 carbon capture facilities in various stages of development, constituting important innovation and novel applications, such as cement, natural gas power, and direct air capture. To deliver near-term innovation successes and emissions reductions, these recommended improvements to 45Q are important to ensure these facilities will be built in this new, uncertain environment. Further important policy mechanisms are FEED grants, cost-share, and demonstration programs aimed at building and replicating multiple facilities and applications thereby reducing cost and risk and incentivizing investment, as recently passed as part of the House infrastructure bill.
- Carbon removal is the next decarbonization frontier. The IPCC’s landmark report on Global Warming of 1.5C includes carbon removal (such as direct air capture) in all its four pathways. With the current, unchecked flow of emissions increasing the stock of CO2 already in the atmosphere, every delay in emissions reductions today increases our reliance on carbon removal in the future. While the availability of carbon removal at scale must not constitute an excuse to postpone emissions reductions, it is an important decarbonization option that – in most models – commences to make significant emissions reductions contributions starting in the 2030s. The Action Plan rightfully emphasizes the need to dramatically increase federal investment in carbon removal.
- Developing saline geologic storage options is crucial for scaling carbon capture and removal. Failure to scale CO2 storage may increase reliance on nascent and more expensive technologies. In fact, according to the IEA, it could lead to 40% higher decarbonization cost by 2060, reaching $13.7 trillion, as well as a doubling of marginal abatement costs in the industrial sector. While the Climate Crisis Action Plan puts forward recommendations on expanding the CarbonSAFE Program currently aimed at developing sites that can store 50 milliton tonnes of CO2, including funding demonstration and commercialization projects for large-scale carbon dioxide storage sites in saline geological formations, the government should focus on developing gigatonne geologic storage sites for the disposal multiple million tonnes of CO2 per year, over multiple decades.
- Building out CO2 transport infrastructure is overlooked as a key opportunity to create near-term jobs. While deploying CO2 capture technology is important, the entire carbon capture and storage value chain includes carbon dioxide transportation and storage infrastructure. The Action Plan directly addresses carbon capture technologies but leaves broader infrastructure policy recommendations for future development. Carbon dioxide transportation networks coupled with large-scale storage sites are crucial to achieving economies of scale, and can act as investment multipliers, as the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line in Canada and Northern Lights in Norway have shown. A recent Great Plains Institute analysis identified regional CO2 transport networks that could lead to the capture, transport, and storage of more than 300 million tonnes of CO2, about 12 times as much as today in the US. Every 200 miles of trunk line can result in up to 2190 jobs, with thousands of further jobs created to retrofit industrial facilities with carbon capture. At the risk of falling behind, the US should concentrate on creating a supportive policy environment leading to the planning and building of near-term regional infrastructure for the transport and storage of large amounts of CO2.
Developing carbon capture projects has taken on average 6 to 8 years. With the clock ticking towards the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, policy must drive investment and climate action in the near-term. The Select Committee’s Action Plan reflects this imperative; now is the time to strengthen innovation so carbon capture technologies can scale over the next decade, creating jobs and positive spillover effects globally.