Carbon Capture vs Carbon Sequestration: What’s the Difference?

Carbon Capture vs Carbon Sequestration: What’s the Difference?

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Grace Smoot

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Reducing the amount of carbon we emit into our atmosphere is key to mitigating climate change and creating a sustainable planet for future generations. Carbon capture and carbon sequestration are two methods to achieve this, but their methodology is slightly different. So, we had to ask: What’s the difference between carbon capture and carbon sequestration?

Carbon capture is the trapping of carbon emissions just after they’ve been emitted but before they can enter our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is the storage of removed or captured carbon in various environmental reservoirs. 

In the fight against climate change, how can we tell the difference between carbon capture and carbon sequestration? Below we will define both terms, identify the key advantages and differences of each, explore how they operate and what impact they have on carbon emissions, and discuss why they are both important in the fight against climate change.

How Are Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration Defined

Carbon capture and carbon sequestration are two sustainability tools that can help individuals and organizations lower their carbon footprints. Understanding how they work and why they are different is important in the fight against global climate change.

What Does the Dictionary Say About Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration

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

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.

Carbon sequestration, the long-term storage of carbon, is another option to reduce carbon emissions. This can occur either artificially or biologically via various methods. 

Carbon Sequestration: the process of storing carbon dioxide that has been collected and removed from the atmosphere, in solid or liquid form”

Oxford Dictionary

Artificial carbon sequestration is a result of carbon capture, where the captured carbon is compressed into a liquid and transported via pipeline, ship, or tanker before being pumped deep underground, often at depths of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), and sequestered in depleted oil reserves, coalbeds, or saline aquifers. 

Biological carbon sequestration is carbon storage in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans. These are commonly referred to as our carbon sinks. 

Carbon Sink: a forest, ocean, or other natural environment viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Oxford Dictionary

Biological carbon sequestration is made up of these main carbon sinks:

  • Soil: Absorb approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, with most of it stored as permafrost. 
  • Oceans: Phytoplankton in our oceans are responsible for absorbing approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, making them one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. 

In short, carbon capture methods trap carbon which can then be sequestered in various environmental reservoirs. The whole process together is termed carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS).

What Are the Differences Between and Advantages of Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration

Both carbon capture and carbon sequestration represent ways in which we can mitigate carbon emissions and global warming. But they are also different methods of climate action with different environmental impacts, making it important to understand their differences.

The main difference between carbon capture and carbon sequestration is that carbon capture encompasses carbon sequestration, but carbon sequestration is just one part of carbon capture. Carbon capture can also include the formulation of new products from the gathered carbon.

The following are key advantages of carbon capture:

  • Removes carbon before it enters our atmosphere
  • Can lead to either carbon storage or carbon repurposing

The following are key advantages of carbon sequestration:

  • Carbon can be sequestered after carbon has been removed or captured
  • Reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide levels

How Do Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration Impact Your Carbon Footprint

Knowing the similarities and differences between carbon capture and carbon sequestration is important when making a decision of which one to use.

Carbon Capture Carbon Sequestration
How are carbon emissions reduced Carbon capture represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is captured after combustion but before it is allowed to enter our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is removed or captured and then stored in various natural reservoirs. 
Impact on own carbon emissions Carbon capture does not directly reduce your carbon footprint.  Carbon sequestration does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
Impact on global carbon emissions Carbon capture mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. Carbon sequestration mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
Environmental benefits Carbon capture aids in climate change mitigation. Carbon sequestration aids in climate change mitigation.
Overall effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions High upfront costs and low economic incentives limit carbon capture effectiveness on a global scale. Carbon sink limitations and costs affect carbon sequestration effectiveness on a global scale.

How Do Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration Reduce Carbon Emissions

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

  • Carbon capture: Carbon capture represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is captured after combustion but before it is allowed to enter our atmosphere.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is captured before it has a chance to enter our atmosphere and then is stored in various natural reservoirs. 

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.

Carbon sequestration also still permits the combustion of fossil fuels at current rates, it is just the gathering of either removed or captured carbon and storage of that carbon in various environmental reservoirs.

What Impact Do Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration 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: Carbon capture does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 

Carbon capture and carbon sequestration do not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. They are both indirect methods of emission reduction and knowing there is an option to essentially erase our emissions after we cause them negates any incentive of reducing emissions of our own accord. 

What Impact Do Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration 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 and carbon sequestration aim to reduce global emissions and mitigate these negative environmental effects.

  • Carbon capture: Carbon capture mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration 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 in the fight against climate change, installed capacity must reach 5,600 million tonnes per annum. 

Carbon sequestration does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. In 2021, overall carbon capture and storage installed capacity reached 40 million tonnes per annum. But in order for this to contribute substantially in 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 for both carbon capture and carbon sequestration.

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 not enough is being done to implement clean energy practices. 

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

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration

Using carbon capture and carbon sequestration can reduce our consumption of and reliance on fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas) which can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. But they also come with various environmental benefits.

  • Carbon capture: Carbon capture aids in climate change mitigation.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration aids in climate change mitigation.

Carbon capture and carbon sequestration aid in climate change mitigation because they both aim to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. Levels of carbon emissions increased exponentially to more than 35 billion tons per year at the end of the 20th century. And the global average amount of carbon in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million

The more carbon there is in our atmosphere, the more serious climate change becomes. When carbon and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, they trap the heat and act as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). But this rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

Rising global temperatures can wreak havoc on our environment. So the more we remove or capture and sequester carbon emissions, the more we slow the rates of sea-level rise, ice melting, extreme weather occurrences, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

How Effective Are Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration in Reducing Carbon Emissions

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

  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sink limitations and costs affect carbon sequestration effectiveness on a global scale.

Both carbon capture and carbon sequestration are reactive, rather than proactive, ways of dealing with emissions. In this manner, we can continue to use fossil fuels at an accelerated rate. They are also expensive to implement, and there will be little economic incentive to use them until the cost of emitting carbon rises enough to prompt behavioral changes. 

The main factor affecting carbon sequestration effectiveness is carbon sink limitations. There simply aren’t enough carbon sinks to contain every ton of carbon that we sequester, and once those sinks fill up, we won’t be able to sequester any more carbon. Also, the more carbon we add to these sinks, the faster we degrade them and render them unusable.

Why Are Both Carbon Capture and Carbon Sequestration Important to Fight Climate Change

Carbon capture and carbon sequestration are important to fight climate change because they are both ways 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. In addition, it boosts the global economy and leads to innovative, more environmentally-friendly solutions.

However, carbon capture and carbon sequestration should not be used as a panacea for climate change. Relying on both solely is impractical because they are reactive (indirect) rather than proactive (direct) ways of dealing with emissions.

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 and Carbon Sequestration

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

However, we can’t let these two methods be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon capture and carbon sequestration must be used in conjunction with 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 footprint:

Reduce your travel 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 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 less 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 greenhouse gas 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.

Final Thoughts

In short, carbon capture is not the same thing as carbon sequestration. Carbon capture is the trapping of carbon emissions after they have been emitted but before they enter our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is the storage of removed or captured carbon in various environmental reservoirs.

Both are tools in our sustainability toolbox that can be used to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. But we should not rely on either or both to be a cure-all for our environmental problems. Direct measures of carbon emission reduction are much more effective in reducing emissions both in the short term and in the long term.

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 of Science 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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