Martin School contributes to new CO2 study
An institution funded by the late Bermuda resident James Martin has contributed to a paper that finds that capturing carbon dioxide to make useful products has the potential to become a viable new global industry while helping to mitigate global warming.
A team of researchers at Oxford University, including participation from the Oxford Martin School, published the most comprehensive study to date investigating the potential future scale and cost of ten different ways to utilise CO2, including fuels and chemicals, plastics, building materials, soil management and forestry.
Dr Martin, a technology pioneer, prolific author and futurologist, made the Oxford Martin School possible with a donation of around $150 million — the largest benefaction in Oxford University’s history. The school produces multidisciplinary research on humanity’s greatest challenges in the 21st century.
Dr Martin, who lived on Agar’s Island, died in 2013 at the age of 79.
Nature has published the CO2 study today. The research found that on average each utilisation pathway could use around 0.5 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of CO2 per year, and that a top-end scenario could see well over ten gigatonnes of CO2 utilisation a year at theoretical costs of under $100 per tonne of CO2.
However, the potential scale and cost of utilisation pathways varied substantially across sectors, reflecting high levels of uncertainty about the future.
“The paper is cautiously optimistic,” Dr Ella Adlen, researcher at the Oxford Martin School and one of the paper’s lead authors, said.
“At the top end, our assessments show that significant volumes of CO2 could be utilised, and at low cost. Done correctly, different CO2 utilisation pathways could help store CO2, or help displace fossil fuel emissions, on the gigatonne scale.
“But, without significant investment in both research and industry, these pathways will not scale in the time that we have left to fix the climate. And just as importantly, the impacts these pathways will actually have on the climate can be very difficult to work out.”
The study considered processes using CO2 captured from waste gases produced by burning fossil fuels, or from the atmosphere by an industrial process. Going further than most existing research on the subject, it also included processes using CO2 captured biologically by photosynthesis.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees with little or no overshoot will require the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere on the order of 100 to 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 over the 21st century. Fossil CO2 emissions are growing by more than 1 per cent annually and reached a record high of 37 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2018.
Professor Cameron Hepburn, director of the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, said: “Greenhouse gas removal is essential to achieve net zero carbon emissions and stabilise the climate.
“We haven’t reduced our emissions fast enough, so now we also need to start pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.
“Governments and corporations are moving on this, but not quickly enough. The promise of CO2 utilisation is that it could act as an incentive for CO2 removal and could reduce emissions by displacing fossil fuels.”
Dr Adlen added: “Done well, some of these pathways could represent one-time windows of opportunity. For instance, we are currently living through a wave of global urbanisation: that’s a chance to lock away CO2 for the long term through the use of building products made out of either CO2-cement or wood.
“Other types of CO2 utilisation like enhanced oil recovery, when you use CO2 to increase oil production and then store the CO2, only make sense to use right now, early in the global decarbonisation process. But these pathways need the right regulatory support — and sometimes significant cost reductions too.”
Some CO2 utilisation technologies are likely to see early adoption simply because of their attractive business models: in certain kinds of plastic production, using CO2 as a feedstock is a more profitable and environmentally cleaner production process compared with using conventional hydrocarbons — and can displace up to three times as much CO2 as it uses.
Biological utilisation may also present an opportunity to reap co-benefits, including soil management techniques that increase farmers’ yields.
• The paper is available at www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1681-6
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