The alternative to stopping climate change is untested carbon capture tech

We could do most of what we need to prevent 1.5°C warming now; reversing it will be nigh impossible

The technology the world needs to reach net zero carbon emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C is increasingly available, but we're still not necessarily on track to meet our 2050 climate change goals, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports.

The research was a follow-up to the same "Net Zero Roadmap" that the IEA released in 2021, which the agency said was necessary after significant changes to the energy landscape in the past two years, driven in part by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

A global ramp-up in the production of renewables, particularly solar, and increased purchases of electric cars are moving the world toward some climate goals. Implementation of solar and EVs since 2021, for example, puts those two technologies on track to meet 2050 net zero goals outlined by the IEA in 2021. 

All in all, things appear to be getting better, at least from the technological standpoint, the IEA said. "In the IEA's original Roadmap in 2021, technologies not yet available on the market delivered nearly half of the emissions reductions needed for net zero in 2050. That number has now fallen to around 35% in this year's update," the organization reported.

That doesn't mean we're doing everything we need to be doing to meet those goals. The IEA said previously that use of fossil fuels and their associated carbon emissions will peak this decade, but their replacement with renewables is "not nearly enough" to meet 1.5°C goals.

Were we to ramp up renewable deployment, improve energy efficiency, cut methane emissions, and increase electrification with tech available today, the world could deliver more than 80 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2030, the IEA said.

Great – we have most of the tech we need, but we still aren't moving quite fast enough.

If humans are going to actually meet net zero goals, they need "large new, smarter and repurposed infrastructure networks; large quantities of low-emissions fuels; technologies to capture CO2 from smokestacks and the atmosphere; more nuclear power; and large land areas for renewables," the IEA said.

But again, we're not moving fast enough. Clean energy investment is set to reach a record $1.8 trillion this year, the IEA said, but that needs to climb to around $4.5 trillion a year by the 2030s – a move that will require stronger domestic policies in countries around the world, as well as improved international support.

We're not ready to fail at this

If huamity fails to rein in emissions, a scenario which the IEA modeled, "nearly 5 Gt CO2 would have to be removed from the atmosphere every year during the second half of this century." Whether that can be achieved is uncertain.

"If carbon removal technologies fail to deliver at such a scale, returning the temperature to 1.5°C would not be possible," the IEA said. As to whether it has faith in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies, that's another story altogether: "So far, the history of CCUS has largely been one of unmet expectations."

Carbon capture technology comes in several forms, all of which are designed to capture carbon emissions at the source, contain it, and sequester it beneath the ground – or reuse it.

While the global volume of planned CCUS projects would increase carbon capture capacity by eight times its current levels, it's still just around one third of the amount needed to meet 2030 carbon capture goals. Whether such development would even happen is questionable, for that matter. A look at carbon capture capacity since 2017 shows that operational capacity is all but unchanged despite considerable increases in planned carbon capture projects.


Planned vs operational carbon capture capacity since 2017

Limited early adoption of CCUS technologies, coupled with absence of plans for long-term carbon storage liability, high operating costs and funding vulnerability have all been factors for why many carbon capture projects have stalled. This, says ICS, raises questions of its ability to scale – even at the industry's current level, project lead times average around six years, which the IEA said is simply too long.

Not only that, but most CCUS projects are happening in the wrong place – countries like China produce more than half the world's coal-fired power, steel, and cement (all three major sources of carbon emissions), but less than 5 percent of the world's CCUS projects, the IEA said. The same goes for other emerging markets.

If the world is to get on track in emerging markets and developing economies, 130 metric tons of CO2 carbon capture capacity – per year – would need to be in the planning stages between now and 2026.

Whether scaling carbon capture technology will even be efficient in unanswered. Researchers from the US National Energy Technology Laboratory have run simulations on Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Frontier supercomputer, and discovered it takes a lot of compute power to scale carbon capture models.

While Frontier derives its energy from hydro power, that's not the case with all high-performance computers – especially in countries like China where much of the future CCUS development needs to take place. If we can't step up global coordination for a simple task like carbon capture, we may just be burning excess carbon to figure out how to prevent such a thing.

"Keeping alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires the world to come together quickly. The good news is we know what we need to do – and how to do it," said IEA executive director Fatih Birol. "Strong international cooperation is crucial to success. Governments need to separate climate from geopolitics, given the scale of the challenge at hand." ®

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