Could Big Oil be the Solution to Climate Change

October 20, 2020

With CO2 emissions continually increasing it is looks more and more likely a solution of huge scope will be the only way to help stop climate change. Is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) the solution and is big oil in a unique position to meet these needs?

Why Do we Need CCS?

If you’re reading this blog the chances are you are pretty up to date with the pressing threat of climate change due to human GHG emissions.

You’ll probably be aware of the succesful implementation of renewable energies across the globe to decrease GHG emissions from the energy sector.

But energy production is one part of a larger problem.

the EPA estimate in 2018 energy production accounted for 27% of global GHG emissions. So over 70% of global emissions are essentially unnaffected by the renewable revolution and require their own solution.

Some climate scientists believe that long term the only solution to reducing global emissions has to, in some form come from CCS and the IPCC stated in their 2018 report, to achieve an average global temperature increase of less than 1.5C some form of CCS is essential.

What is CCS?

Carbon Sequestration is the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. It comes in numerous forms, but here I am going to highlight the main Carbon Sequestration techniques available today.

  1. Point source Capture. Aims at collecting the CO2 produced in industrial processes before it reaches the atmosphere and storing it in geolical formations. An example would be from flue gases in a power station.
  2. Direct Air Capture (DAC). Also known as artificial trees, these technologies rely on taking carbon directly from the ambient air around us.
  3. Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BeCCS). This technique aims to replace conventional fuels with biofuels than take in CO2 in their production, and then capturing the emissions when the fuel is burnt, resulting in a net negative fuel.

Point source capture unfortunately suffers from the fact that it can’t result in negative carbon. It is only employed in systems where they are burning fossil fuels in the first place so all it does is reduce the emissions being released. It also suffers from a high running costs and drops the efficiency of the fuel it is being used with as it is a very energy intensive process.

You might be asking why I haven’t listed the other most obvious form of carbon sequestration? Planting trees! Well ideally yes , planting trees is a great form of carbon sequestration. However it suffers from two problems. Firstly it recquires a large ammount of land, and secondly the average time for a tree to reach maturity is around 10-20 years so unfortunately it is not something we can use to directly tackle carbon at this very instant. Ideally it can be used in conjuction with other CCS technologies for a long term carbon reduction plan.

So is it with DAC and BeCCS we must put our faith in for a succesful CCS technology?

Both technlogies can promise net negative carbon emissions and can have an instant impact. However both suffer from one major drawback. They are costly, and suffer from scaling issues.

So Where Does Big Oil Come Into it?

Big oil are uniquely positioned in this issue. They are some of the main global contributers to GHG emissions globally. Yet they have an infrastructure of specialist engineers and scientists and the money to scale these technologies.

Carbon Engineering is a DAC company backed by numuerous large investors including Bill Gates and Shell.

They have created a proof of concept factory that captures as much carbon as nearly 40million trees. They estimate if 40,000 DAC plants were created globally that would be enough in itself to reduce carbon emissions to net zero. Is that a lot? Well to put it into perspective there are over 38,000 McDonalds globally.

It’s a lot, but it’s possible.

However it would recquire a scale of production that is unprecedented. Imagine the capabilities Big Oil could have to help change the world if they were united in a shared vision of a green future. Since 1990 just the top 4 Big Oil companies have totalled profits of nearly $2tn and employ 280,000 people, including engineers and scientists in the UK alone. If they were comitted to helping the world become carbon neutral the power they could wield would be incredible. However currently there is not enough incentives for them to do this.

Ultimately Big Oil is driven by profit and the only way they will ever make big change is if there is financial incentive to do so. It is down to governments to apply pressure on them to reduce their emissions and hopefully encourage them to invest in technologies such as DAC or BeCCS to help with this.

Just a disclaimer….

This article isn’t an endorsement for Big Oil. They have consistently been some of the worlds biggest offenders in CO2 emissions and with companies such as ExxonMobil predicting their emissions to increase by 17% by 2025 they are certainly not on course to reaching carbon neutrality.

It’s more of a what if…

Anyway, just some food for thought.

Joseph Ash

by Ben Richardson

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