Carbon sinks in ‘realistic’ net zero plan

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The national science agency says natural and engineered carbon banking technologies can help Australia reach net zero emissions.

As scientists develop advice on Australia’s 2035 target, the first stocktake of the nation’s carbon sequestration potential has assessed ways to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere to help meet international pledges to cut emissions.

Australia is well positioned with abundant land resources, significant geological storage capacity, vast marine areas for storing so-called blue carbon and abundant clean energy potential, according to a CSIRO report released on Monday.

“Permanently removing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere combined with ambitious emissions reductions, provides the only realistic path for the world to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement,” the report said.

CSIRO found significant potential in permanent plantings, plantation and farm forestry, soil carbon where plants suck up emissions, and in geological storage, where carbon is pumped deep underground to mimic how oil and gas have been trapped for millions of years.

Climate Change Authority CEO Brad Archer said understanding the potential would help build greater ambition into national climate targets.

Uptake has been high in nature-based technologies partly due to taxpayer support for carbon farming and the Emissions Reduction Fund, with some methods since swept up into an integrity review.

Another technology enabler is the creation of market mechanisms that encourage “benefit stacking”, where multiple payments can be paid for the same activity delivering a range of benefits, to improve the overall value proposition of technology implementation, the report said.

The stocktake found good technical potential for sequestration, with permanent plantings forecast to be able to store 480 million tons of carbon per year, plantation and farm forestry 631Mt per year, and soil carbon by 115Mt per year by 2050.

Geological storage was found to have the greatest biophysical or technical potential at 227 gigatonnes, but future use will be sharply lower than what is scientifically possible.

Totalling all geological storage projects in development, the estimate for 2035 economic sequestration was 24Mt per year and 50Mt per year for 2050.

For scale, Chevron’s $3 billion Gorgon project, which is Australia’s first such project and one of the world’s largest, has stored 6.6Mt since 2019, and has not been without difficulties, CSIRO said.

A bioengineering technique known as BECCS, which stands for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture technologies, which extract carbon directly from the atmosphere, could add another 5Mt per year by 2050.

Early-stage projects in biochar made from plant material and agricultural waste or BECCS could be linked to industrial processes – such as using biochar in making plastics or biomass for smelting – or improving land, which would unlock more opportunities, the report said.

The International Energy Agency expects carbon management services for transporting and storing carbon in large quantities to become a global industry by 2050, including in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, to support industrial processes and emissions reduction.

But public acceptance, cost, competition for energy and water, and land use constraints will affect where carbon storage can be developed.

“Carbon sequestration could bring many opportunities to Australia’s regions and rural and remote areas, including new income streams, jobs, and valuing and protecting the knowledge and practices of First Nations Australians,” Mr Archer said.

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