From Bill Gates to the pope, talk of carbon capture and its efficacy is dividing society

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This image from 2016 shows a carbon capture project in Texas.

Houston Chronicle/hearst Newspapers Via Getty Images | Hearst Newspapers | Getty Images

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) is fast approaching, and businesses, politicians and environmental organizations are weighing up how best to slash emissions and tackle climate change both now and in the future.  

From wind turbines and green hydrogen to solar panels and fossil fuels like natural gas, a host of sources and innovations are being touted as tools in the fight to safeguard the planet’s future, sparking intense debates about their merits and flaws.

Technologies related to carbon capture are also generating a huge amount of discussion, and the sector’s potential was a hot topic at the recent ADIPEC oil and gas conference in Abu Dhabi.

During an interview with CNBC at ADIPEC, the CEO of energy technology firm Baker Hughes was asked why carbon capture hasn’t been scaled to the point of commercialization and decarbonization.

“It is coming,” Lorenzo Simonelli replied. “And I look at all the different carbon capture processes that exist in our portfolio, but those also available in the market, and we are starting to see scalability,” he added.

“The Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, [and] some of the policies being introduced in Europe, do enable that,” Simonelli said. “And if I look at just our first half order intake, 50% of it was relative to CCUS.”

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According to the U.S. Department of Energy, CCUS — carbon capture, utilization and storage — refers to “a process that captures carbon dioxide emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants and either reuses or stores it so it will not enter the atmosphere.”

CCUS is different from carbon capture and storage, or CCS, which is when CO2 emissions related to industrial processes are captured and stored, rather than reused.

Other processes in the sector include direct air capture, with firms like Climeworks operating in the space.

Climeworks, which specializes in direct air capture and storage, has offices in Switzerland and Germany. Its clients include businesses such as Stripe and Microsoft, and the Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund has invested in the company.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has spoken about using Climeworks to “pay for direct air capture” and while the sector has high-profile backers, it faces challenges.

The International Energy Agency, for instance, notes that capturing carbon dioxide from the air “is more energy intensive — and therefore more expensive — than capturing it from a point source.”

“Carbon removal technologies such as DAC are not an alternative to cutting emissions or an excuse for delayed action, but they can be an important part of the suite of technology options used to achieve climate goals,” the Paris-based organization adds.

Ex-BP CEO on the Paris Agreement and CCUS

Another high-profile figure speaking to CNBC at ADIPEC was Bob Dudley, the ex-CEO of energy giant BP.

He sought to contextualize the role of CCUS within the wider energy transition.

“By 2050 there’ll be 2 billion more people on the planet,” he said, arguing that every form of energy — including increases in nuclear — would be needed. 

“We’ve got to have everything and decarbonize it, and there’s great new technologies that are doing that,” he said.

“I don’t know of a single scenario to get us to Paris without natural gas — cleaned up natural gas — displacing coal, that’s really important,” Dudley added, referring to 2015’s Paris Agreement.

“And second is CCUS,” he said. “And people say CCUS is only a tool for the oil and gas industry to perpetuate its life — that’s not true.”

While carbon capture has its advocates, the technology is divisive and has been questioned by a range of organizations.

In March 2023, for example, the environmental group Greenpeace expressed strong views on the subject in a political briefing published ahead of announcements from the U.K. government related to energy security.

“Carbon capture is not zero carbon; is unlikely to see dramatic cost reductions or be scalable; and is often used for greenwashing by oil and gas companies so they can carry on polluting,” it said.

“It doesn’t do what it says on the tin and certainly should not be prioritised as part of a green industrial strategy,” it added.

‘Pushing a snowball down a hill’

Pope Francis is another high-profile figure who’s weighed in on the subject.

In a recent letter titled Laudate Deum, or Praise God, Francis touched upon the use of technology to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Among other things, he noted that “some interventions and technological advances that make it possible to absorb or capture gas emissions have proved promising.”

“Nonetheless, we risk remaining trapped in the mindset of pasting and papering over cracks, while beneath the surface there is a continuing deterioration to which we continue to contribute,” he added.

“To suppose that all problems in the future will be able to be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism, like pushing a snowball down a hill.”

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