Is carbon dioxide shifting its role from villain to saviour? Rowena Sellens, CEO of Econic Technologies thinks it could be
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently stated that Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technologies are essential in order to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
Thanks to developments in science, carbon dioxide is being transformed from a villain into a valuable manufacturing staple and could help tackle challenges brought by the need of environmentally sustainable development.
Worldwide, sustainability has risen up the agenda, and China has been no exception. The Chinese government included measures to reduce the country’s carbon footprint in the latest five-year plan, and announced the first nationwide phase of its emissions trading scheme in 2017.
Thus, climate-conscious Chinese investors will be on the hunt for the next green investment opportunity. What if it lies in carbon itself?
A vital target for reducing the impact of industry on the planet is to cut emissions and achieving net-zero carbon by 2050. In a recent report, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee forecast that the UK will spend £30-60 billion every year for 30 years to meet net-zero carbon by 2050. A small price to pay compared to the potential long term costs of the climate crisis. But despite the fact that CCUS technologies have been hailed as ‘crucial’ for meeting the target, policy support for CCUS technology has been inconsistent to date.
Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear to policymakers and businesses alike that now is the time to take up such technological solutions if we are to address the climate crisis. At the UN’s Climate Summit in September 2019, Collin O’Mara, chief of the National Wildlife Federation, said that there is no way that net-zero carbon emissions can be reached without CCUS technology.
There is no way that net-zero carbon emissions can be reached without CCUS technology
Meanwhile, some countries are a step ahead of others in taking stock of the potential offered by CCUS. Japan, for example, has announced a strategy to establish commercial-sized carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) technologies by 2023, whilst Canada has provided financial backing to fast track its carbon economy.
For Chinese investors interested in CCUS, the UK offers incredibly fertile ground. For example, in 2019 the UK Government funded its largest carbon capture project, established by Tata Chemicals Europe. Meanwhile, Drax Power Station, the UK’s biggest renewable power generator, is capturing a tonne of carbon dioxide every day using technology from C-Capture.
The process itself is also relatively straight-forward: waste carbon dioxide is captured at the source of its creation, such as from the factories where fossil fuels are burned, or directly from the atmosphere using a range of separation methods. These techniques include the filtration technology used by ClimeWorks, or C-Capture’s chemical solvent that selectively reacts with carbon dioxide in the air. Once captured, carbon dioxide can either be stored underground, or it can be used in the manufacture of a range of products and materials, thanks to recently pioneered utilisation technologies.
Not only are CCUS vital for tackling carbon emissions, but with a whole host of possible applications, new and established businesses across a range of industries are now turning to CCU as part of their sustainability strategies. Practical applications include CarbonCure, which captures waste carbon dioxide to improve the manufacture of concrete. Similarly, Carbon8 Systems permanently captures carbon dioxide for use in the treatment of industrial waste.
The plastics sector could also benefit from CCU. For example, Econic Technologies’ catalyst technology uses waste carbon dioxide as a raw material in the production of polyols, the building blocks of polyurethane. Polyurethane is a plastic widely used in our everyday lives – from the automotive industry to the soles of our trainers and the foams used in insulating our homes.
With 40 percent of the world’s polyol market based in China, and the global polyurethane market valued at £18.5 billion, there is huge economic potential for the technology in China alone. What’s more, the technology’s impact is not restricted to its commercial potential – it could save the equivalent of 2 million cars’ worth of emissions a year. The product performance improves, too, resulting in reduced flammability or enhanced resistance to abrasion.
Turning to CCU could also be an effective response to consumers putting pressure on businesses towards increased sustainability. A report by Nielsen shows that environmental contentiousness has become a necessity for companies, as 66 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products – a figure that rises to 72 percent in millennials.
Although a waste product that is harmful to the environment when left in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide has the potential to turn into a useful resource to address the climate crisis. Businesses and investors could reap the economic and environmental benefits of investing in and incorporating CCUS technologies into sustainability strategies. The clock is ticking for industries to act now to meet the net-zero target in 30 years’ time – and CCUS could well be the answer.