Moving emissions with emissions
By Nick Van Osdol
Here’s a news story that caught my eye because it illustrates just how complex the broader umbrella of ‘climate tech’ can get.
There’s growing momentum behind the concept of shipping CO2 internationally to facilitate carbon storage. There’s lots of innovation happening in the carbon removal and sequestration space, look no further than recent raises by carbon removal companies like Verdox and carbon removal marketplaces like Nori and Agreena.
Even on the legislative front, which typically feels like a quagmire, there’s greenshots. The latest? Legislation out of New York designed to turn the state into a carbon removal leader. Music to Robert Downey Jr.’s ears.
One key challenge (out of many) for carbon removal tech? How to store CO2 with some degree of permanence, i.e. preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere again any time soon.
Some nature based carbon sequestration techniques, e.g. those based on farmers adopting more regenerative agriculture practices, ‘store’ excess CO2 in soil. Or there’s good ol’ reforestation and ecosystem preservation, which ‘store’ CO2 in the form of biomass that wouldn’t have existed otherwise 🌲.
For new hardware engineering solutions however, once a machine sucks up emissions or specialized filters attract and bind them to materials, you need to find a place (and a mechanism) to store that CO2.
That’s where shipping comes in; there’s companies and orgs that are looking around the corner here and see a future where carbon removal scales to the point where captured emissions can’t always be stored on site.
The players 🚢
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced earlier this year that they will build new ships specifically outfitted to transport liquified CO2. The early ‘models’ will transport up to 1,450 m³ (~500 tonnes) of liquified CO2.
There’s a growing cadre of players who are positioning for shipping CO2 to be a big trend. They especially see countries like the UK or Japan as being prime candidates to ship CO2 at scale; these smaller countries are highly developed and could well be big carbon removers, but they’re small, geographically constrained, and won’t necessarily have the right ecosystems and geological formations that lend themselves to long term CO2 storage.
Northern Lights is another key player. This Norway based project is funded by major O&G companies, who are often also major investors in and developers of carbon removal projects. Theirs is a carbon storage as a service play (‘CSaaS’). They’re not building the ships. They’re awarding ship building contracts and offering shipping and storage services to removal projects. Their initial storage sites are deep under the ocean’s seabed in Western Norway.
Other players on the ship building side are working on larger ships than Mitsubishi; e.g. competitors are looking to develop ships that could carry 5x as much CO2.
If all of this sounds expensive, that’s because it will be. Hardware based carbon removal is already expensive; carbon removal credits from high tech solutions trade at significant premiums to offsets or removals from ‘nature-based’ solutions.
If you start layering shipping costs on top, it’ll take longer for them to reduce prices, which impacts how quickly all of this can scale.
Beyond the dollar figures, you have to wonder about the emissions from shipping itself. Existing cargo ships burn a very crude form of bunker oil. Ships as a whole emit a lot less greenhouse gasses than do cars and trucks on the road (less friction!). But they’re more intensive in terms of nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions.
Distilling emissions from any individual ship’s routes is a tricky task, as it varies based on ship, cargo, route, etc. I found this study instructive however, and it offers us a baseline for shipping from the U.K. of around 0.05 tonnes of CO2e per tonne of cargo transported. So if something similar applies to transporting CO2, you lose 5% of the emissions removal by moving it around.
Funny story – I fudged the calculation above in my first draft, and thought that number was 50%. Which would have doomed this entire idea 😂. I figured folks smarter than I at these logistics had reasoned it through, and found my mistake.
Still, a 5% haircut on emissions removals that are already hard to pay for and require intensive feats of engineering is no joke. What it also tells me is that innovation is needed in shipping, too.
Which in turn points to the interconnectedness of all of climate tech. Thousands of solutions working in tandem is the ticket. Each in isolation only goes so far.