Canada’s unusual interest in Carbon Capture projects

pollution rising from power station chimineys

Carbon capture has failed to take off around the world, so why is Canada is still trying to buck the trend?

Canada is planning two new large-scale carbon capture projects and already leads the world in carbon capture capacity. So it seems sensible to ask why only Canada appears to be investing heavily in a technology that has being presented as a solution to climate change for decades?

Two major projects
According to documents leaked to Reuters, the Canadian Natural Resources Department is planning to subsidise two major carbon capture and storage projects that would quadruple capacity across the country.

The new hubs would collect carbon from groups of high carbon emitters – which are usually industries like cement or steel manufacture – though the locations for the projects have yet to be revealed. Once captured, the carbon would then be stored underground, which is something the oil and gas industry is bidding to facilitate with its infrastructure and technology.

Once up and running, the two new projects would help Canada sequester 15 million tonnes of carbon annually. Unfortunately, that figure helps to illustrate the small scale of carbon capture in the world.

Global carbon emissions are now above 30,000 million tonnes, yet the two Canadian projects would give the country a third of global carbon capture capacity. So why has carbon capture stayed small?

Alternatives have grown more strongly
While both main parties in the upcoming Canadian elections promote carbon capture as a solution to climate change, other countries have moved in very different directions with great success.

Renewable energy has not yet removed fossil fuels from the electricity mix, but its technology has advanced incredibly fast. Offshore windfarms, for example, didn’t exist until thirty years ago but now produce more than 35Gigawatts of energy every year. Renewable energy as a whole has grown similarly and now makes up more than 90% of all global energy installation each year.

For industries and transport sectors that still require fuel, the world has moved towards green hydrogen – effectively cleaning up the well-established process of producing hydrogen. Moves towards this instead of carbon capture in places like the Middle East reflects the growth of renewables, which allows for clean electricity to produce clean fuel that emits no carbon.

That same focus on renewable electricity has even seen moves to establish electric versions of traditionally high-polluting, fuel-burning industrial facilities like steel plants in places like Russia.

So why carbon capture in Canada?
Julia Levin, programme manager at Environmental Defence, told Reuters that carbon capture was an expensive distraction from transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, saying: “It’s been five decades of huge amounts of resources, research, public and private investment and we have a global capacity to capture 0.1% of emissions from the fossil fuel sector.”

While Julia Levin is right that global progress has been slow, she may be wrong to see this investment as something that would hold back other technologies.

Canada itself has significant renewable electricity generation thanks to its large hydropower capacity and Canada generates more of its energy from renewables than the OECD average. So this may prove similar to North European experience, where investment in nuclear power is significant but countries have established their global leadership in renewables too.

Instead, Canada is perhaps simply targeting a different sector to establish a global advantage in. It has extensive oil and gas capacity and underground caverns for storage, so just as Denmark and Germany are investing in green hydrogen to capitalise on their growing renewable energy capacity, Canada may simply be trying to focus on its own advantages.

Canada isn’t actually alone
We should also note that while Canada is a rare in heavily pursuing carbon capture, it isn’t actually alone in seeing such investment as worthwhile.

This summer, the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) issued a report into the opportunities for carbon capture. The NIC’s chair, Sir John Armitt, explained: “In the longer term we believe there should be a competitive market for engineered removals, with polluters footing the bill. Our report sets out how acting now can create this new sector by 2030, with these early actions driving down costs for those needing to procure removals.”

Sir John, however, may also have hit upon a challenge that has seen carbon capture progress slowly compared to other technologies, warning that, “Government will need to provide significant upfront support to get the sector moving.”

That need for political will and public money may be the biggest difference between Canada and many other countries, something Sir John Armitt may well address at next week’s Global Infrastructure Conference where he is one of the headline speakers. IG will be there to keep our readers informed on what he and other industry leaders have to say.