Carbon dioxide: From Villain to Asset

By Rowena Sellens

Sustainable investment is on the rise. With discussions about how to tackle climate change dominating policy across the globe, the attention of investors is now turning to the technologies that are presenting viable solutions to climate change. Carbon dioxide might seem an unlikely place to invest. However, with recent parliamentary reports suggesting that adoption of CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage) technologies by businesses and governments alike is essential for hitting net-zero carbon targets, we are now on the verge of a shift in perceptions. Carbon dioxide is being transformed from villain of the climate crisis to an asset. CCUS technology creates world-changing solutions that address climate change and accelerate the global transition to carbon neutrality, reversing human impact on the climate. It is based on unique solid sorbents and it’s scalable, eco-friendly, and commercially available today.

Policymakers are at last recognising CCUS’s potential for helping to tackle climate change. Most notably for the UK, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee stated in a report earlier this year that implementing CCUS technology is imperative if we want to meet climate change targets at minimum cost. The report forecasts that the UK will spend 1-2% of its GDP every year (equating to an eye-watering £30-60 billion annually for 30 years) to meet the UK’s net zero carbon goal by 2050. Ignoring the potential of CCUS would be a costly mistake. Concluding that these technologies are ‘crucial’ to the 2050 net zero emissions target, the BEIS report also voiced surprise that, despite the fact that the UK is considered to have one of the most favourable environments globally for CCUS technology, policy support has, to date, been unstable. The report marked a welcome clarification of support for CCUS technology and called on businesses to invest sooner rather than later.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee stated in a report earlier this year that implementing CCUS technology is imperative if we want to meet climate change targets at minimum cost.

Following the renewed support for CCUS, the Government also recently announced funding for the UK’s biggest carbon capture project, set to be built by Tata Chemicals Europe in Cheshire. The funding represents a long overdue move from the UK to use carbon capture on a commercial scale: the first project of such a scale was the Sleipner gas field project in Norway, back in 1996. Indeed, globally, some countries are more advanced in their support of CCU than others; Canada, for instance, has funnelled substantial investment into accelerating its carbon economy.

But it is not only the UK government who are waking up to the potential of CCUS as a solution to the climate crisis we are facing: the former U.S. Secretary of Energy and President and CEO of Energy Futures Initiative, Ernest Moniz, lead a keynote address at New York’s Climate Week in September, on how carbon removal technology is, in fact, a must-have for the climate. Policy experts and entrepreneurs warned that a rapid uptake of carbon capture technologies is necessary if we are to seize the window of opportunity for combatting climate change. The discussion at Climate Week, in a convergence of global leaders and industry experts, represents a broader recognition of carbon dioxide as an asset.

There is now a growing recognition that the technologies that enable businesses to make use of carbon dioxide as a commercially viable resource are in fact already a reality. One such company that uses innovative technology to reduce emissions is ClimeWorks, which has pioneered technology to capture and purify carbon dioxide from the air before using it as a resource in the food and agriculture industries. Indeed, applications of this long-lambasted compound as a valuable waste product are vast: Deep Branch Bio have found use for carbon in making sustainable protein feed for animals. Meanwhile, CarbonCure technologies capture recycled carbon dioxide to improve the manufacturing process of concrete. Carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) can provide a host of environmental, economic and performance benefits across industry lines.

Beyond these applications, CCU technologies are also transforming the polyurethane industry. For instance, the catalyst technology developed by Econic Technologies uses carbon dioxide as a raw material in the manufacture of polyols, the building blocks of the widely used polyurethane. Whether in the insulation of our homes and fridges, in the elastomers useful in off-shore applications and the transportation industry, or even in the soles of our trainers, polyurethane is a material that features in our everyday lives. The potential impact of this technology is wide-reaching, especially given the global polyol market is valued at $24 billion. Not only are products made with this technology helping to address the climate crisis – potentially saving the equivalent of over two million cars’ worth of emissions per year – but they also demonstrate performances benefits too, such as reduced flammability, improved strength, and scratch resistance.

With the business case for CCU technology presenting advantages across a range of industry sectors, consumers are also piling the pressure on businesses to make sustainable investment choices. As climate change has risen to the forefront of news agendas, consumers are increasingly viewing sustainability as an essential consideration rather than an optional extra. A growing consumer awareness of the importance of sustainability was reflected in a recent report by Nielsen, in which 66% of consumers said they would be willing to fork out more for sustainable products. This figure rises to 72% amongst millennials.

However, as the issue of sustainability gains greater media traction, so too does the prevalence of greenwashing: the practice of promoting false green credentials. With the chair of the International Accounting Standards Board declaring greenwashing is ‘rampant’, investors should be wise to the risk that their sustainability endeavours could be inadvertently undermined. Sweeping claims of sustainability must be held up to the light: leaders must go further than glossy credentials, and prove their dedication to environmental change with tangible actions. It is the task of investors to scrutinise, as well as for CEOs to justify the sustainable practices of their businesses in the fight against the tide of greenwashing.

Recognising the potential of carbon dioxide, rather than dismissing it merely as a villain, is essential in taking action against climate change. Opening eyes to the possibilities offered by CCU technologies is a much-needed step forward to provide tangible ways of not only reducing emissions, but also in turning this waste by-product into an asset for a multitude of industries. With world leaders and industry experts sparking an awareness of the range of economic and environmental benefits of utilising carbon dioxide, it is not too late to tackle our climate crisis. Carbon dioxide could just be the next big investment opportunity for those truly concerned about the long-term sustainable solutions to climate change.

About the Author

Dr Rowena Sellens is the CEO of Econic Technologies. Her distinguished career in the polymer industry has led to her holding senior management positions in R&D, manufacturing, sales & marketing and general management. Rowena joined Econic from Lucite International where she was firstly Director of Global Research, moving to Commercial Director and then latterly General Manager, EMEA Materials. In addition to her leadership qualities, Rowena has an extensive track record in new product delivery as well as experience commercialising ground-breaking technology.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.