Hydrological limits to carbon capture and storage


Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a strategy to mitigate climate change by limiting CO2 emissions from point sources such as coal-fired power plants (CFPPs). Although decision-makers are seeking to implement policies regarding CCS, the consequences of this technology on water scarcity have not been fully assessed. Here we simulate the impacts on water resources that would result from retrofitting global CFPPs with four different CCS technologies. We find that 43% of the global CFPP capacity experiences water scarcity for at least one month per year and 32% experiences scarcity for five or more months per year. Although retrofitting CFPPs with CCS would not greatly exacerbate water scarcity, we show that certain geographies lack sufficient water resources to meet the additional water demands of CCS technologies. For CFPPs located in these water-scarce areas, the trade-offs between the climate change mitigation benefits and the increased pressure on water resources of CCS should be weighed. We conclude that CCS should be preferentially deployed at those facilities least impacted by water scarcity.

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Fig. 1: Geospatial distribution of coal-fired plants facing water scarcity in the 2011–2015 period.
Fig. 2: Exposure of CFPPs to water scarcity.
Fig. 3: Water consumption and withdrawal intensities of CFPPs with and without CCS.
Fig. 4: Water consumption and withdrawals of CFPPs with and without CCS.
Fig. 5: Additional water scarcity with amine absorption carbon capture technology.

Data availability

The data used to perform this work can be found in the Supplementary Information and in the reference list. Any further data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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L.R. was supported by an Ermenegildo Zegna Founder’s Scholarship and by an AGU Horton Hydrology Research Grant. We thank N. Wanders and E. H. Sutanudjaja (Utrecht University) for sharing input and output files from the PCR-GLOBWB model. We thank D. D. Chiarelli, C. Passera and M. C. Rulli (Politecnico di Milano) for irrigation water consumption data.

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L.R. conceived the study, led the study design, data analysis, data collection and writing; J.A.R., M.S.W. and P.D. assisted with study design and writing.

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Correspondence to Lorenzo Rosa.

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Rosa, L., Reimer, J.A., Went, M.S. et al. Hydrological limits to carbon capture and storage. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0532-7

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