13 March 2017

Technology that “vacuums” the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and stores it underground can be a way of reducing global warming. But there is little interest in investing in this technology, according to a recent study by LiU researchers.

After the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the technology received considerable attention because it could be a way for the world's governments to achieve the goal of limiting global warming. The method is based on removing the carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change, from the atmosphere, and putting it into long-term storage underground. By cultivating energy crops such as short rotation coppice (SRC), grass or sugar cane, it is possible to create a flow where the carbon dioxide is bound in biomass. The biomass is then used in processes to create, for example, electricity, pulp or biofuel, which releases carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is then collected and transferred to storage in sealed caverns.

Key technology

“The method is seen as a key technology for achieving the global climate change target. In the US it has been tested on a small scale with positive results, but its wide-scale use is yet to be investigated,” says Mathias Fridahl, researcher at LiU’s Department of Thematic Studies – Environmental Change.

Together with other LiU researchers, Mathias Fridahl has been commissioned by the Swedish Energy Agency to learn more about the technology and the interest in it. The studies are carried out in collaboration with researchers from Chalmers University of Technology and Oxford University. The first substudy is now complete – it measures the willingness of the world’s governments, businesses, researchers and the environmental movement to invest in the technology. The results, comprising more than a thousand responses from around the world, show that the interest is low. There are several reasons for this, says Mathias Fridahl:
“The method presents both opportunities and risks. If the technology really started to be used on a large scale, it would be a way to compensate for emissions that are otherwise difficult to rein in, for example in the agricultural sector. On the other hand, competition for land, water and nutrients is often tough. A large-scale implementation of the technology could have consequences for the world's food production, for example.”

A duty to act

Although interest is low on average, there are variations between different parts of the world. For instance Asia is more interested than Europe.
“That could be because there is greater potential for the technology there. They have the storage capacity as well as access to biomass,” says Mathias Fridahl.
Generally, governments show the most interest, compared to the business sector and other groups.
“They have a duty to act, to reach the climate change target; they have to deliver initiatives, so it’s really no surprise that they’re the most positive.”

Interest amongst the business sector is somewhat higher than amongst researchers and the environmental movement, but the opportunities to make a profit are currently not sufficient for business to make more substantial investments. The research community sees both opportunities and risks, while the environmental movement is mainly critical. There are several reasons for this. Among other things, the cultivation of short rotation coppice, sugar cane or other suitable biomass requires enormous land areas, possibly at the expense of rainforests and the local population.

Another reason is the uncertainties involved with the underground storage of carbon dioxide. Parallels have even been drawn to the final storage of nuclear waste – what happens if the carbon dioxide leaks out, for example after an earthquake?
“Virtually all climate scenarios indicate that we need this technology to reach the climate targets. But if the appetite for investment and the social acceptance is low, the technology will probably only have limited distribution. Therefore, we’re now going to investigate further why interest is so low. We will also broaden the material and examine the long-term climate goals set by governments, and what these governments are doing to achieve their visions and commitments. For example in Sweden a new climate change bill is on the way.”

The study has been published in Energy Policy.