This all-or-nothing mindset is getting old. We see it in Congress with cavalier calls to shut down the government over policy disputes, and we see it in some corners of energy policy with an approach that opposition to carbon capture technologies is the best way to reduce carbon emissions (no, it doesn’t work that way).

To some extent, I get it. In my present role, writers often ask me about deadlines for their stories. My visceral response: I want it all, and I want it now. It’s an elegant blend of ’80s classic rock anthem with post-pandemic residual self-absorption.

But the want-it-all-want-it-now policy from CCUS detractors is ignorant and unrealistic (as opposed to my want-it-all-want-it-now policy that is not ignorant though entirely unrealistic). Fact is, no, you can’t always get what you want (’70s rock anthem), but if you try sometime, you’ll find you get what you need.

What’s needed is a reduction in the greenhouse gases (GHG) that rise into the atmosphere and alter the climate beyond what would be expected, given the natural history of the earth. This happens when fossil fuels combust to generate energy. If those gases are captured, then we have the benefit of affordable, accessible energy without placing the planet in peril. That’s the goal (want it all), and it’s looking like it can be achieved.

The United Nations COP28 framework sets the ceiling at a 1.5 C increase in the global temperature by 2100. How are we doing? In the Resources for the Future’s (RFF) Global Energy Outlook 2024, released in April, the research institution examines numerous climate scenarios put forth by entities ranging from Exxon Mobil to the Energy Information Administration to OPEC to Equinor to Shell.

“To achieve international climate goals and limit warming to 1.5 C or 2 C by 2100, a true energy transition is needed,” RFF says. “But does achieving such goals require phasing out fossil fuels entirely? The scenarios we analyze in this report suggest that the answer is no.”

carbon capture trend
The Shell Sky 2050 projection of CO2 captured from now until 2055 reflects confidence that the combination of direct air capture, CCUS and growing use of hydrogen will play a meaningful role in managing GHG emissions in the future. (Source: Shell)

Fossil fuel use is projected to decline but remain substantial through mid-century and beyond, researchers have found. This is the case even under scenarios that limit warming to 1.5 C.

And that’s a good thing. Solar and wind are excellent renewable sources of energy, but are not advantageous everywhere, such as Poland, which has been plagued with a decades-long uptick in heavy storms (can’t always get what you want). Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are abundant, high in energy efficiency and used for transportation and industry everywhere, every day (you’ll find you get what you need).

Transitioning away from fossil fuels is a complicated process, not a bumper sticker. The value of CCUS lies in easing the transition and accelerating carbon emission reduction. It just can’t be done immediately.

But it can be done. Achieving the goal requires increased use of CCUS infrastructure around the world. In 2022 about 42 million metric tons (MMmt) of CO2 were captured globally. That may not seem like much—it’s only 0.1% of annual global emissions—but it was three times as much as captured in 2010.

By 2050, that figure could reach as high as 20% of worldwide emissions, as estimated in some ambitious climate scenarios. The RFF authors contend that a dramatic growth rate at that level is technically achievable (want it all) but faces considerable headwinds (can’t always get what you want).

Direct air capture, for example, pulls CO2 out of ambient air (want it all) and sequesters it (want it now). It can then be used, as Occidental Petroleum does in the Permian Basin, for EOR. That drives opponents batty because they say the fossil fuel produced eliminates the climate benefits of permanent sequestration (can’t always get what you want). 

“On the other hand, it is at least technically possible for the volumes of CO2 stored using EOR to meet or exceed the emissions embodied in the oil produced; in other words, EOR could theoretically be used to produce ‘carbon neutral’ or even ‘carbon negative’ oil,” the RFF authors say.

The energy transition is aptly named. Had Madison Avenue gone with energy turn-on-a-dime, the palpable disappointment might be understandable. This is going to take a while.

But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.

Ah baby, yeah….