Widespread CCS use would cost trillions of dollars: study

A new study finds that adopting CCS across many polluting sectors would cost $30 trillion more than a low-CCS scenario. Experts say the fossil fuel industry’s preferred solution would be “highly economically damaging.”

An oil refinery and petrochemical plant in Thailand (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/MAGNIFIER)

A high reliance on carbon capture and storage would be immensely costly, and would cost far more than a rapid decarbonisation programme that does not see widespread deployment of CCS, according to a new study.

CCS is extremely expensive and faces an array of technical challenges — CCS has yet to prove that it can actually capture as much CO2 as many oil and gas companies have promised. But the industry has promoted CCS as one of its favourite climate “solutions” because it would allow existing fossil fuel production to continue.

But a large-scale adoption of CCS would cost trillions of dollars more than a future that relies on CCS only for a narrow set of applications, according to a new study from Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

The study looked at two scenarios that put the world on a net zero pathway by 2050. The high-CCS route would cost $30 trillion more than the low-CCS scenario, or an additional $1 trillion per year.

“Relying on mass deployment of CCS to facilitate high ongoing use of fossil fuels would cost society around a trillion dollars extra each year – it would be highly economically damaging,” Dr Rupert Way, Honorary Research Associate at the Oxford Smith School, said in a statement.

Renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many applications, particularly in the electricity sector. Layering costly CCS technology onto existing oil, gas, and coal assets would only pile on additional costs, making fossil fuel assets even less competitive.

Because of this fundamental problem, the oil and gas industry, in many cases, is calling on governments to pick up the tab. In the U.S. and Canada, for example, lobbying has successfully led to billions of dollars in subsidies for the troubled technology.

It’s unclear if heavy subsidies will be enough to make up the difference. The cost of solar and wind has fallen dramatically over the past decade, as mass adoption has led to falling costs. However, the story is not the same for CCS, which generally requires unique designs for individual projects, and cannot be standardised in the same way as renewable energy technologies. The Oxford study found that CCS has exhibited no evidence that costs are falling over time.

“Any hopes that the cost of CCS will decline in a similar way to renewable technologies like solar and batteries appear misplaced,” Way said. “Our findings indicate a lack of technological learning in any part of the process, from CO2 capture to burial, even though all elements of the chain have been in use for decades.”

The authors argue that CCS will likely be needed in the future to capture emissions from difficult-to-decarbonise sectors in heavy industry, but that the far-reaching adoption of CCS, envisaged by the oil and gas industry, would be prohibitively expensive.

The risk is that government support leads to more carbon capture use than is justified economically, while also delaying the emissions cuts needed to keep climate targets alive.

A separate study from the London-based watchdog group InfluenceMap found that most corporate advocacy promoting CCS contradicts the climate science laid out in by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to keep global warming to well-below 2-degrees Celsius.

Between 2021 and 2023, more than 80 percent of the 750 samples of corporate engagement related to CCS collected in the study were not IPPC-aligned. Those messages come from a long list of oil companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Cenovus, as well as industry trade groups including the International Gas Union, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and American Petroleum Institute (API).

The report found that the promotional PR tended to either indiscriminately promote CCS as a key climate solution or offer it as a solution in an effort to slow the transition away from fossil fuels.

Those campaign efforts appeared coordinated, and spanned international borders. “Evidence of a common messaging playbook suggests strong collaboration between global oil and gas companies in their CCS advocacy,” the report said.

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