As we respond to the global impacts of climate change and transition to a net zero emissions future, key components of many sectors are having to evolve rapidly. These sectors include energy (particularly electricity systems), industry, transport, and energy exports.
Different countries and regions across the globe are responding to the common challenge of climate change through a variety of carbon management solutions. To achieve the necessary mitigations, they are taking actions considering their specific needs, options, and circumstances.
We are working to provide reliable, actionable, evidence-based research to help Australia and other nations meet net zero emissions by 2050 goals.
The carbon challenge
It is widely recognised that a broad portfolio of emissions reduction and carbon management solutions is required to reduce and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the system to meet future emission targets. Some of these technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), are viewed as contentious. However, several decades of experience with geological storage projects across the world have shown that CO2 can be stored securely in the right setting with very low risk of leakage.
Nature-based solutions – such as reforestation and soil carbon farming – will contribute towards Australia’s emissions reduction efforts. But they are unable to deliver at the magnitude required to meet our targets. Excessive reliance on land-based carbon credits will inevitably lead to competition with other land use options. This could be at the expense of vital industries such as agriculture.
This is why the deployment of engineered solutions such as large-scale carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) continues to be important. All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C (>50%), involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate greenhouse gas emission reductions in all sectors, including transitioning to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS.
The IEA World Energy Outlook 2022 notes that under a net zero emissions by 2050 scenario, global CCUS facilities will have to increase their capacity. This is from the current level of 45 megatons (Mt) of CO2 each year, to 1.2 gigatonnes (Gt) per year in 2030, and to 6.2 Gt per year in 2050.
The Final Results of the 2023 Net-Zero Australia study indicate all scenarios for Australia to reach net zero by 2050 will require the development of a large CCUS industry, capable of storing 80 to 1000 Mt of CO2 per year.
What is CCUS?
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is a proven technology that captures and stores or utilises CO2. This helps reduce the amount of CO2 currently in, or being released into, the atmosphere.
Captured CO2 can be compressed, transported to a well, and injected into deep underground reservoirs. These are either depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs or saline reservoirs with a porous rock such as sandstone. These microscopic spaces, called pores, hold the CO2 securely. The reservoirs are capped with an impermeable layer of rock that stops the CO2 from moving upwards. CO2 can be stored in these vast reservoirs for thousands to millions of years.
About a sixth of Australia’s emissions come from industries including cement, steel, and aluminium. These industries can still produce some CO2 as an inherent part of the production process, even when they are using zero-emission energy sources. Unlike the power sector, these industries do not currently have the same range of decarbonising options (for example, using renewables). However, CCUS is one option that is often compatible and can be applied, either directly or indirectly, to these hard-to-abate industries to reach net zero.
Australia can also capitalise on CO2 as a resource. Captured CO2 can be utilised by converting it into new, low-emission products. These can include conversion into synthetic fuels used in aviation, locking it into carbon fibre or using it in building materials.
The volumes of CO2 used, and the size of the markets, are not yet big enough for utilisation to be a global climate change mitigation strategy. But CO2 utilisation in Australia could be seen as a net-zero-compatible economic opportunity.
What is happening with CCUS nationally and internationally?
The global pipeline of CCS projects currently stands at 30 projects in operation, 11 under construction and 153 in development, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI). Spurred on by greater investment and enabling regulatory mechanisms, the research, deployment and expansion of this pipeline is undergoing rapid growth. The GCCSI notes CO2 capture capacity of CCS facilities under development has jumped 44 percent in the last 12 months.
The US, UK, Canada, and other nations have announced additional funding support for CCUS development. The US support is largely through its Inflation Reduction Act. This legislation includes unprecedented financial support for clean energy and climate change initiatives, with specific allocation to CCUS.
The European Union has set CO2 injection targets and streamlined the procedures for securing CCUS permits. And this year Indonesia became the first country in our region to establish a legal and regulatory framework for CCUS projects.
What are the opportunities for Australia?
In Australia, we have several comparative advantages when it comes to CCUS development. Our geology, landmass, existing infrastructure, and potential for cheap, renewable energy resources all offer opportunities for domestic and international CO2 transport, storage and utilisation.
There are currently 18 CCS projects at various stages of progress in Australia (including two test facilities), with current planned projects forecast to sequester 20 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2035. The number and scale of these planned projects indicates the growing interest in CCS as an essential component for global decarbonisation.
In addition to storing domestically captured CO2, the large quantities of geological stable land in Australia means there is potential to import and store CO2 from other countries less able to rapidly reduce their emissions.
Managing trans-border transport of CO2 as part of a global energy system could empower countries endowed like Australia to support global efforts. This could help to reduce emissions, maintain revenue from its geological resources, develop new markets for CO2 sequestration and address the indirect CO2 emissions generated by countries using Australian sourced energy supplies - known as scope 3 emissions.
For example, Australia supplies more than 40 per cent of Japan’s liquified natural gas, which generates CO2 emissions when combusted for electricity generation. Japan has limited CO2 storage potential. However, if emissions are captured locally and exported for storage, it could see our nation compete for and participate in a new market for international transfer and storage of CO2.
This will help support global efforts toward 2050 emission goals.
What is CSIRO doing to further develop CCUS?
We have more than two decades of experience in CCUS research and technology development. Our expertise has been engaged on most CCS projects in Australia at some stage of their progress. We have broad capabilities in the science that underpins CCUS technology and a strong track record of working with government, industry and research organisations on demonstration and operational projects.
Through our National Geosequestration Laboratory and CO2 In-situ Laboratory facilities, our research is focused on deploying large-scale demonstration projects that enable substantial reductions in emissions and provide a pathway for industry to adopt the technologies at full scale.
For more than a decade, we have operated point source CO2 capture pilot plant programs at power plant locations in three different eastern states in Australia. This program has generated valuable information on the technical, economic and environmental performance of the leading absorption-based technologies. This has enabled us to develop a world-leading capture technology that has been licensed overseas. The international collaboration involved a variety of partners from Norway, China, Japan, and the USA.
We are also undertaking research into direct air capture to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through chemical processes. This is a relatively new research area with emerging opportunities in Australia, Europe and the US. Our collaborative work to date includes Airthena™ , CarbonAssist and the Ambient CO2 Harvester.
Carbon utilisation is a key focus. In 2021, we published a CO2 Utilisation Roadmap to explore the opportunities presented by emerging CCUS technologies for Australia to support new industries and reduce carbon emissions. A subsequent, more targeted report, Opportunities for CO2 Utilisation in the Northern Territory, was released in 2023 to help inform the business case for the proposed Northern Territory Low Emissions Hub.
Research toward reaching net zero emissions is also being progressed as part of our Toward Net Zero Mission and CarbonLock Future Science Platform – which focus on current activities and emerging nature and ocean-based, and mineral-based, solutions for decarbonisation and carbon dioxide removal.
Through a combination of robust science and strategic investment, Australia can build on past successes and comparative advantages to position itself as a world leader in CCUS. Collaboration between governments, industry, communities, and researchers continues to be essential if we are to implement CCUS technologies at scale and meet net zero 2050 emission targets.