UTDSIDSINewsResilience Reflection #31: Climate resilience or climate problem?
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Resilience Reflection #31: Climate resilience or climate problem?

In this issue of Resilience Reflections, Sebastian Husein demonstrates that the added value of some forms of Carbon Capture and Sequestration to reduce overall CO2 levels are not all that they appear to be.

In this regular series by the Resilience@UT and 4TU Resilience, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Climate resilience or climate problem?

Resilience is the ability to continue despite difficulties and disasters. From that perspective, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) seems a resilient climate solution as it offers the potential to re-capture and store already-emitted CO2 and reduce environmental damage even if we miss emissions reductions targets. Recent successes of CCS technologies appear to support this, with media outlets showcasing it as a “miracle technology”. It’s also a major part of the EU Commission's latest roadmap for decarbonization [1].

Unfortunately, current forms of CCS are comparable to being robbed and then paying the robber to promise that they’ll stop—but instead, they use your money to buy tools to steal from you more effectively. At best, these inefficient and massively uneconomical “climate solutions” are diverting resources away from proven solutions. At worst—as we are increasingly seeing—mechanical forms of direct air capture CCS allow fossil fuel companies to obtain public funding to reduce emissions on paper but use the CO2 to extract more fossil fuels and ultimately increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Here's the conclusion if you’re short on time: Investments in carbon capture would have been better spent on wind and solar. These displace about 35 times as much CO2 per year as the total captured capacity of CCS since its introduction. Moreover, public funding spent on CCS by and large leads to greater fossil fuel extraction.

Captured CO2 for extracting more fossil fuels

One of the most successful CCS companies, Carbon Engineering, was recently acquired by Occidental Petroleum for US$1.1 Billion. They aim to capture and sequester 1 million tons of CO2 per year while emitting only 500,000 tons. Sounds good, right? That’s until you ask, how can they sequester it economically? The answer: in tapped-out oil fields. These are fields where all the easy-to-access oil is already extracted, leaving mainly a viscous tar sludge underground. Injecting CO2 underground (sequestration) increases the pressure, forcing oil upwards. The CO2 blends with the tar, allowing it to flow more easily. This is Enhanced Oil Recovery, and it’s the 2nd largest market for CO2 (the first being fertilizer): 79% of operating carbon capture capacity globally uses captured CO2 for this process [2].

But surely captured CO2 doesn’t have to be used for oil extraction! Aren’t there other uses like making polymers and chemicals, carbonates, and sustainable synthetic fuels? That’s indeed Carbon Engineering’s claim: sustainable jet fuel can be made. But straightforward calculations show that synthetic fuels (fuels from CO2 and green hydrogen) will be 3 to 6 times more expensive [3]. Biofuels (e.g., from waste biomass) are far more promising.

The way forward

Some applications of CCS make more sense than direct air capture [4], such as the emissions from unavoidable industrial process, e.g., from limestone kilns for cement production, where CO2 concentrations are high enough to make it economical. However, natural solutions such as reforestation and restoring natural habitats offer more scalable and ecologically harmonious approaches to carbon sequestration. Ultimately though, the focus must remain on reducing emissions through electrification of energy systems and transitioning to low-carbon electricity sources. We don’t need “miracle technologies”, especially those which are simply increasing society’s oil and gas usage.


[1] COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS Securing our future Europe’s 2040 climate target and path to climate neutrality by 2050 building a sustainable, just and prosperous society.

[2] O. C. International, “Carbon Capture’s Publicly Funded Failure,” Oil Change International.

[3] “Simplified levelised cost of competing low-carbon technologies in long distance transport – Charts – Data & Statistics,” IEA.

[4] “Carbon capture and storage ladder,” E3G.

About the author 

Sebastian Husein is an Impact Development Manager with the Strategic Business Development Department, with a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering. He builds (public + private) consortia and programs to link academic vision with industry expertise. In particular, he works together with those innovating for batteries, solar technology, sustainable data centres, [green] hydrogen, and other topics important for the energy transition.

More information 

Find more information about the Resilience @ UT programme at our website