Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has long been touted as part of the solution to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
Fast forward to 2023 and global policy experts increasingly identify CCS as an essential part of the global path to maintaining the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperate rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
One of the persistent arguments against the use of CCS is that it will prolong the transition away from the use of fossil fuels and thereby prolong the ‘fossil fuel age’. Historically, the majority of CCS facilities under development or in operation were attached to natural gas processing or fossil fuel-fired power generation.
Today, the development of CCS projects is expanding beyond the fossil fuel sector, moving into other hard-to-decarbonise industries, such as cement, pulp and paper. However, CCS is still seen – erroneously – as taking resources and focus away from carbon abatement.
Canada’s pulp and paper sector is a prime example of how this opposition may be doing more harm than good.
Since the 1990s, pulp and paper mills across Canada have aggressively worked to reduce their GHG emissions by moving away from high-intensity fossil fuels to natural gas and, in many cases, bioenergy produced from wood waste. By 2020, Canada’s pulp and paper sector had reduced its GHG emissions by 60% from a 1990 baseline.
The options for making further emissions reductions in the short- to medium-term in Canada’s pulp and paper sector are limited.
The continued use of natural gas at pulp and paper mills is generally required to operate boilers or other equipment, which requires a reliable and secure source of energy. In most locations there is no viable alternative to natural gas.
Replacing existing boilers with more energy efficient boilers comes at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per boiler, with most facilities operating multiple boilers. The technology has yet to be developed to reduce the energy intensity of the drying process without negatively impacting the quality of pulp and paper produced.
Moreover, at least some of the carbon reduction success achieved by Canada’s pulp and paper sector relies on the carbon neutrality assumption associated with combusting wood waste. In other words, the carbon that is emitted from the combustion of wood waste is assumed to be zero, based on the lifecycle carbon assessment of trees.
While these carbon neutral emissions are technically moving the sector towards net zero, there is ongoing debate over the validity of the carbon neutrality assumption. The gains that Canada’s pulp and paper sector has achieved looks less impressive if the carbon neutrality assumption no longer holds.
This may be because climate change is impacting Canada’s forests or because policy makers decide that in order to meet the world’s Paris commitments, all CO2 emissions need to be treated equally.
As a result, Canada’s pulp and paper sector is having to look to bioenergy with CCS (or BECCS). This is not because it is seeking to avoid abatement but rather because it was an early adopter of clean technologies and now has limited viable options to reduce emissions further.
Implementing BECCS is the most economically and technologically feasible pathway to further emissions reductions of total carbon at many Canadian pulp and paper facilities. As forest management practices continue to improve to maximise the carbon sequestered in Canada’s forests and long-lived wood products, there is also a realistic potential for the use of BECCS to contribute to the drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere and become a negative emissions technology (NET).
It is widely accepted, including by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that the use of NETs will be essential to meet our commitment to 1.5C.
At this juncture in the race to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, there is no silver bullet.
The path to maintaining an increase of 1.5C is becoming less clear. We need to start implementing the proven technologies at hand to have a hope of meeting the commitments made in Paris.
We live in an “all of the above” world, and we should implement the technologies we know will keep us on the path to net zero and 1.5C, while continuing to develop the technologies that will allow us to more rapidly reduce emissions and atmospheric concentrations of GHGs in the future.
The answer is not “either/or” when it comes to carbon abatement and CCS: it must be “both”.