Carbon Capture Explained: All You Need to Know

Carbon Capture Explained: All You Need to Know

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Grace Smoot

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Global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have steadily increased since the Industrial Revolution, which fuels our climate change crisis. But what if there was a way to trap carbon before it can enter our atmosphere? This is referred to as carbon capture, and it could be one solution to the problem. So, we had to ask: What is carbon capture really, and could it help us mitigate climate change?

Carbon capture is the trapping of carbon emissions just after they’ve been emitted but before they can enter our atmosphere. It directly reduces your carbon footprint but does not work at the core issue of reducing global carbon emissions. Yet, it is one method to mitigate climate change.

Keep reading to find out all about what carbon capture is, the impact you can have with it both individually and globally, its benefits and drawbacks, and why it may not be the most effective way to mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of Carbon Capture

Carbon capture refers to the process of capturing carbon after it is emitted, but before it can enter our atmosphere.

Carbon Capture: a way of collecting the carbon produced when fuel is burned, so that it is not released into the air”

Cambridge Dictionary

There are 3 main types of carbon capture:

  1. Post-combustion: After fossil fuels are burned, the CO2 is removed from resulting flue gas.
  1. Pre-combustion: Before fossil fuels are burned, the fuel is converted into a mix of hydrogen and CO2
  1. Oxyfuel: Fossil fuels are burned in the presence of almost pure oxygen, resulting in CO2 and steam as byproducts. 

After it has been captured, carbon can either be stored deep underground or repurposed into commercially-marketable products. This is referred to as carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS). 

Leaders in this industry include The Clean Air Task Force, CarbFix, Climeworks, and Global Thermostat. Since their inception in 2017, Climeworks have built 15 DAC machines and switched on the world’s first large-scale plant back in 2021. For every 100 tons of CO2 captured from the air, 90 tons are permanently removed, and only up to 10 tons are re-emitted by the DAC machines.

As of 2020, there were a minimum of 26 carbon capture projects operating globally, with 21 more in early development and 13 in advanced development. Carbon capture has been demonstrated in industrial sectors such as coal gasification, ethanol production, fertilizer production, natural gas processing, refinery hydrogen production, and coal-fired power generation. 

What carbon capture isCarbon capture refers to the process of capturing carbon after it is emitted, but before it can enter our atmosphere.
How carbon capture worksCarbon capture represents direct emission reductions. Carbon is captured after combustion but before it is allowed to enter our atmosphere.
The impact of carbon capture on your own emissionsCarbon capture does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
The impact of carbon capture on global emissionsCarbon capture mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
The overall effectiveness of carbon capture on reducing carbon emissionsHigh upfront costs and low economic incentives limit carbon capture effectiveness on a global scale.
The main benefits of carbon captureCarbon capture aids in climate change mitigation and protects ecosystems.
The main drawbacks of carbon captureSlow technological development and high costs of implementation

How Does Carbon Capture Work

Carbon capture refers to the trapping of carbon emissions post-emission but pre-entrance into our atmosphere. It is a way to mitigate the adverse effects of carbon emissions that occur after they enter our atmosphere. 

How Does Carbon Capture Reduce Carbon Emissions

The goal of carbon capture is to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate climate change.

  • Carbon capture represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is captured after combustion but before it is allowed to enter our atmosphere.

When you hear the words “carbon capture”, think about the word “trap”. Carbon capture still permits the combustion of fossil fuels at current rates, it just traps the emitted carbon before it enters our atmosphere. It can then be stored or repurposed into other materials.

What Impact Does Carbon Capture Have on Your Own Carbon Emissions

One of the best ways we can aid in the fight against global climate change is to reduce our carbon footprint. And to do this we first have to reduce our carbon emissions. 

  • Carbon capture does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 

Carbon capture does not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. Capturing carbon emissions after fossil fuel combustion is an indirect method of emission reduction. Knowing there is an option to essentially erase our emissions after we cause them negates any incentive of reducing emissions of our own accord. 

Coupled with direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy usage and consumption, carbon capture can become more effective. 

What Impact Does Carbon Capture Have on Global Carbon Emissions

Every year we pump over 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, fueling climate change. This causes temperature and sea-level rise, melting of sea ice, changing precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification. Carbon capture aims to reduce global emissions and mitigate these negative environmental effects. 

  • Carbon capture mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.

Carbon capture does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. Once it has been captured, the most common next step is to store the carbon. In 2021, overall carbon capture and storage installed capacity reached 40 million tonnes per annum. But in order for CCS to contribute substantially to the fight against climate change, installed capacity must reach 5,600 million tonnes per annum. Thus there still remains a substantial gap between what we currently have and what is needed to reduce our emissions to the Paris Climate Agreement target levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decrease in energy-related carbon emissions since World War II, a decrease of 2 billion tonnes. However, emissions rebounded quickly and rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level. This indicates that the earth is still warming at an accelerated rate, and still, not enough is being done to implement direct carbon reduction measures.

Illustration of annual CO2 emissions globally
Our World in Data: Annual total CO2 emissions

How Effective Is Carbon Capture in Reducing Carbon Emissions

Carbon capture can be effective at reducing carbon emissions under certain conditions.

Carbon capture is a reactive, rather than proactive, way of dealing with emissions. In this manner, we can continue to use fossil fuels at an accelerated rate. Carbon capture does not incentivize us to emit less carbon, it simply gives us a way to erase our emissions after we have already created them. It is also expensive to implement, and there will be little economic incentive to use it until the cost of emitting carbon rises enough to prompt behavioral changes.

What Are the Main Benefits and Drawbacks of Carbon Capture

Carbon capture has benefits and drawbacks that are important to understand before it is implemented on a large scale. Although carbon capture can be used to reduce carbon emissions, it faces financial barriers.

What Are the Main Benefits of Carbon Capture 

Carbon capture comes with environmental benefits in addition to limiting global carbon emissions resulting from fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas). 

  • Aids in climate change mitigation: Carbon capture aims to reduce the amount of carbon emissions entering our atmosphere. Levels of carbon in our atmosphere have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. Emissions are currently 35 billion tons per year and still increasing. The global average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 ppm. Carbon capture can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.
  • Improves Air Quality: Degradation of air quality as a result of carbon emissions is a serious issue. In 2009, the U.S. government declared CO2, CH4, N2O, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) threats to the public health and welfare of current and future generations. Reducing C02 emissions would lead to improved public health in terms of asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer.  

What Are the Main Drawbacks of Carbon Capture 

The main drawback to carbon capture is the high upfront cost of implementing it. Carbon capture costs vary greatly by carbon source. It can range anywhere from $15-25 per 1,000kg of CO2 (for ethanol production and natural gas processing) and $40-120 per 1,000kg of CO2 (for cement production and power generation). It is also a relatively new and understudied technology. Only some carbon capture technologies are currently commercially available while others remain in development, which contributes to a large range in costs.

Why Is Carbon Capture Important to Fight Climate Change

As outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Carbon capture is important to meet this target because it is a way to reduce carbon emissions. This mitigates the effects of climate change, which has a positive cascade effect on public health and plant and animal diversity.

However, carbon capture should not be used as a panacea for climate change. Relying on it solely is impractical because it is a reactive way of dealing with carbon emissions rather than a proactive way. 

In the long term, direct methods of carbon footprint reduction are much more effective. Reducing your household, travel, and lifestyle carbon footprint can go a long way in the fight against climate change!

What are Better Alternatives to Carbon Capture

If used correctly, carbon capture can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. It has the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon capture must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures until the industry has time to invest, develop, and refine more sustainable innovations. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to Renewable Energy Sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because carbon capture is an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, it alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to carbon capture.

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

Final Thoughts

Carbon capture is the trapping of emitted carbon before it enters our atmosphere. It does not work at the core issue of reducing global carbon emissions because it is a reactive way of dealing with emissions. It also faces financial barriers due to its high cost of research, development, and implementation. However, when implemented properly it can aid in climate change mitigation, improve air quality, and protect our ecosystems.

Carbon capture is a good place to start if you want to get into the carbon-emission reduction game, but in order to be effective in the long term, we must not rely on it solely. Cutting emissions from the source is the best way to reduce our carbon footprint and provide the highest environmental benefits.

Stay impactful,

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Grace Smoot

Grace loves to research and write about all things related to climate action and sustainability. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology and works as an Environmental Survey Technician. Outside of work, she loves to work out, play soccer, and take her dog for long walks.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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