Over the course of the last three centuries, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide (CO2) chief among them, have risen steadily. As the developing world continues to industrialize at an ever-increasing rate, global emissions are going to continue to be an ever larger concern. With climate change arguably one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today and in the coming decades, experts around the world are scrambling to develop and implement technologies to offset and reduce these emissions.

Technologies like wind power, solar power, and electric vehicles are all very promising, and could make up a larger share of the world’s energy system by mid-century. However, it will take time to adapt our existing infrastructure to their use. If we hope to slow or halt global warming, we must also focus on solutions that can be implemented on a large scale today, particularly on everyday industrial processes like power generation and steel production — solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The CO2 emissions from industrial sources are considerable, contributing 25 percent of global emissions.

With CCS, carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is extracted from the process that creates it, diverted into pipelines, and then placed in long-term storage sites located underground in existing geological formations. And, in many cases, CCS technology can be added to existing facilities like refineries and power plants, immediately reducing their emissions by up to 90 percent.

The perfect must not be the enemy of the good

The CO2 emissions from industrial sources are considerable, contributing 25 percent of global emissions. Its ability to achieve large emissions reductions from fossil fuel power plants and other industrial processes makes CCS as an ideal solution. “It can remove CO2 now without impacting how we generate power,” explains Dr. Rick Chalaturnyk of the University of Alberta. “You can even put it on the back end of a coal-fired generating plant.”

Several early CCS projects in Canada are already blazing the trail in the conversion of our energy system to a substantially reduced carbon footprint.

The idea of employing a range of technologies and approaches is absolutely vital to a long-term carbon reduction plan. Meeting emission targets is going to require a multi-faceted approach, with different technologies coming online at different times and taking differing lengths of time to decarbonise sectors of the economy. In this plan, technologies that can achieve large emissions reductions today will have their effect multiplied over time when compared against a potentially more comprehensive solution that is 20 years down the road. “CCS is not the silver bullet,” says Dr. Chalaturnyk. “It’s just an effective immediate set of technologies that allows us to keep CO2 from entering the atmosphere.”

Canada already laying the groundwork

Several early CCS projects in Canada are already blazing the trail in the conversion of our energy system to a substantially reduced carbon footprint. The SaskPower Boundary Dam carbon capture project near Estevan, Saskatchewan, became active in the autumn of 2014. It was the world’s first post-combustion CCS project to be integrated with a coal-fired power plant. Similarly, Shell Canada has recently opened its Quest CCS project at the Scotford Upgrader in Alberta, which converts oil sands bitumen into refinery-ready feedstock for producing crude oil. Each of these projects is capable of capturing up to one million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. That’s a combined effect of taking about a half a million cars off the road.

Alberta’s plan not only provides financial incentives for reducing emissions but will also generate revenue to be directed towards the further development of greenhouse gas reduction technologies.

The potential for CCS to play a hugely important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is clear. For that to happen, however, public-private partnerships are needed to enable the continued development and implementation of the technology. The Quest project, for example, was made possible through a combined investment of $865 million from the governments of Alberta and Canada, and funding from the joint venture owners of the Athabasca Oil Sands project: Shell Canada Energy (60 percent), Chevron Canada Limited (20 percent) and Marathon Oil Canada Corporation (20 percent).  “Quest is a model for industry and government partnership to advance an important technology to combat climate change,” says Shell Canada President and Country Chair Michael Crothers. As part of the funding agreement with the government of Alberta, Shell is openly sharing details on Quest’s design, construction, and operation to benefit future CCS projects worldwide. “Quest provides a blueprint to encourage global adoption of CCS,” adds Crothers.

Which is not to say that governmental support needs to come primarily in the form of direct investment. The creation of a policy framework and carbon reduction incentives will also play a critical role in maximizing the impact of CCS. “Governments can help create a stable regulatory and fiscal framework to support technology development,” says Crothers. “This will provide industry with the confidence to invest in and develop CCS on a much larger scale.”

If we take this responsibility seriously, Canada stands a good chance of becoming a global beacon in the fight against climate change.

A key part of this framework must take the shape of carbon pricing mechanisms, such as the plan that Alberta has developed. Alberta’s plan not only provides financial incentives for reducing emissions but will also generate revenue to be directed towards the further development of greenhouse gas reduction technologies. Putting a price on carbon is probably the single most powerful tool for energizing industrial innovation towards combating emissions. As the federal government begins to lay the groundwork for a national climate change policy, it is crucial that carbon pricing initiatives be expanded and built upon across Canada.

Public engagement is key

Because the problem of global warming is one that affects every person on the planet, and because a successful plan to fight climate change must of necessity be driven by public-sector engagement, every Canadian has a responsibility to be informed and active in working towards a solution. It is especially important that we recognize that good answers come in all shapes and forms. “Clean energy technologies like windmills and solar panels are widely known, but it’s more difficult to get behind a technology like carbon capture and storage that looks like a collection of pipes and tubes,” says Crothers. “It’s not the most eye catching technology, but it makes a big difference.”

If we take this responsibility seriously, Canada stands a good chance of becoming a global beacon in the fight against climate change. We are already leaders when it comes to the technologies; the next step is to become leaders in applying them as well. “Canada has done a really good job at positioning itself with expertise in CCS,” says Dr. Chalaturnyk, “but in terms of making a solid commitment and investment, we’re not doing quite as well. ”It’s Canada’s time to change that.