Carbon Utilization: A Vital and Effective Pathway for Decarbonization

The capture and utilization of CO2 and other carbon oxides emitted from power generation and industrial facilities has been technologically feasible for generations and has gained greater attention in recent years as a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Captured carbon can be stored in geologic formations, or used either to produce oil from depleted wells through the enhanced oil recovery (EOR) process (which sequesters the CO2 underground), or in the creation of a variety of products. These measures generate revenue that can partially offset the costs associated with capture.

Because EOR is already widely practiced, it is not considered by this report. Instead, the focus is on non-EOR utilization of captured carbon, which offers the potential to significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Pathways include the production of construction materials, fuels, plastics, chemicals, and algae-based products (e.g., fuels, animal feed, and fertilizers). Each of these sectors, along with their potential for market growth is explored herein.

While non-EOR carbon utilization does not, at present, greatly contribute to greenhouse gas reduction it offers significant potential to do so in the coming decades, given advances in technology, wider commercialization, and supportive government policies. CCU may be an especially useful tool for decarbonizing certain industrial sectors and providing an option in locations where either social issues or land constraints do not allow for other types of carbon disposition. Also, the continued development of CCU technologies may help drive carbon capture innovation generally, making broader greenhouse gas reductions possible.

Numerous government agencies, non-governmental entities, and academic institutions have recently considered the potential development of carbon utilization and how government polices might encourage it. Rather than duplicate that body of research, this report seeks to provide an overview of options, growth and greenhouse gas reduction potential summarized by use category.

This report discusses carbon utilization products and processes and focuses on policy actions that can foster growth in carbon utilization by 2030, in part because markets beyond that timeframe are difficult to predict, but mostly because deliberate near-term action is needed if CCU is to expand significantly. However, more general climate policies, such as carbon pricing or the inclusion of fossil-based carbon capture in clean energy standards, are also necessary to lay the foundation for a low-carbon economy that includes new demand for CCU-based products and processes.