The adoption of CCU technologies could help to mitigate the harmful effects of industry on the environment by enabling us to:
- substitute fossil-based raw materials;
- reduce the amount of energy consumed in some processes; and
- at least temporarily store carbon dioxide emissions.
By utilising carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted, these technologies allow for a delay of emissions over the life cycle of a particular product. It may even be possible to prevent emissions in the long term by binding carbon dioxide permanently, for example, in cement. This is unlikely to contribute significantly to climate protection however due to the limited amounts of carbon dioxide that can be bound in various materials: In an optimistic scenario that featured in a study prepared by Dechema (2017), approximately 290 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be bound in polymers and other chemical base products in Europe each year. A further 380 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be utilised annually in the production of synthetic fuels such as methanol and dimethylether (DME). It is worth noting that these figures do not reflect the actual savings potential. According to the study, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by 210 million tons annually through the adoption of carbon-binding technologies in the production of polymers and other basic chemical products, and 288 million tons in the case of synthetic fuel applications. By way of comparison, global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions totalled approximately 36 200 million tons in 2017.
However, products and components that are manufactured using CCU technologies are not necessarily less harmful to the environment. Many different criteria must be taken into account in order to evaluate the impact of a product over its entire life cycle. These include the carbon dioxide sources, transportation, production process, operating life, and recycling and disposal options. Such Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of CCU products aim to provide a transparent evaluation of their effects on the environment. For ease of comparison, however, standard criteria are required, and until now these have only existed in the form of scientific recommendations.
Does carbon dioxide utilisation deliver economic benefits?
In recent years, many companies in the chemical industry, the energy and building materials sector have invested in the industrial utilisation of carbon dioxide. This development has been driven by a range of factors, including volatile commodity prices, finite fossil resources, new business opportunities, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The supply of carbon dioxide for CCU technologies at a local level would be guaranteed in the long term, technically feasible, and, compared to fossil sources, even associated with cost savings in some cases. There is an opportunity for companies to reduce their dependence on suppliers of raw materials by recycling emissions either from their own industrial plants or from cooperation partners. Overall, CCU offers an opportunity for companies to improve the ecological footprints of their manufacturing processes, delivering a combination of ecological and economic benefits on a path towards sustainable development.
CCU technologies also hold huge potential from a macro-economic perspective. The option of using a new, local source of raw materials could grant the regional chemical and building materials industry a competitive advantage at international level. In addition to this, developers can also gain an innovative edge and could eventually export their know-how. This could contribute to economic growth and create or preserve jobs. The possible interlinking of sectors through CCU could generate synergies and contribute to industrial symbiosis. However, because the production costs of some CCU products are currently higher than conventional products, industry has not pursued all of the technically feasible technologies. The incentives to invest in CCU are also influenced by trends in the pricing of carbon dioxide in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Given uncertainties around the costs involved and access to renewable energies, investment – in particular in CCU-based fuels – currently carries risks that only a few market participants are willing to take.
Can products made from CO2 close the carbon cycle?
The utilisation of carbon dioxide represents more than a mere change in processes within the chemical and building materials industry. It also entails a change of perspective: on the way to a more sustainable society we need to reassess our approach to the management of finite resources and our understanding of waste. CCU technologies touch on both aspects: they utilise a gas that is a central driver of climate change and they can simultaneously reduce the consumption of fossil resources. Particularly when combined with renewable energies, CCU offers many possibilities to improve or even close industrial carbon dioxide cycles.
To ensure that the potential of these technologies to contribute to a circular economy is fully realised, as yet unanswered questions (e.g. around Life Cycle Assessments and the basic political and economic frameworks for the utilisation of carbon dioxide) must be answered and possible effects evaluated and addressed in a dialogue involving representatives of science, industry and politics.