Monday

23rd Oct 2017

Europe holds off on storing CO2

  • The Sleipner field in the North Sea is one of the few installations in Europe that deploys carbon capture and storage. (Photo: Kjetil Alsvik/Statoil)

In six weeks, climate negotiators will meet in Bonn, Germany, to attend the United Nations' annual climate conference.

They will debate how they can implement the global agreement struck in Paris in 2015, which aimed to slow down the average temperature rise to a maximum of 2C, and to make an effort not to go beyond 1.5C - the current temperature rise since pre-industrial times is already more than 1C.

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  • Many environmentalists saw CCS as a technology that the coal industry could use as 'a fig leaf ... to keep burning like there is no tomorrow', said Jonas Helseth (Photo: Linda Choritz/350.org)

Reports from energy and climate institutes mostly agree that to achieve the 2C goal - and even more so to achieve the difficult 1.5C goal - some degree of implementation of a technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS) is needed.

The technique, which traps the planet-warming CO2 gas from energy producers or industrial plants and then transports it to an underground facility, has been around for decades.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its most recent assessment report - a thoroughly peer-reviewed study which is the basis of climate action - that CCS could contribute to "significant" CO2 emission reductions.

"Any realistic research piece that has been done on how do we counter climate change for a longer-term scenario, shows we need CCS," Jonas Helseth told EUobserver in an interview. Helseth is director of the European branch of the Bellona foundation, which has supported the use of CCS for many years.

However, its deployment as a means of climate action has been lagging behind.

In a report published in November 2016, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that CCS "is routinely overlooked in many mainstream climate and energy policy discussions".

The focus is more on reducing energy use, and installing renewable energy solutions, such as wind power and solar ("renewables").

"While there is no question that renewables and energy efficiency are a significant and critical part of the global climate response, the scale of the challenge means that all technologies, including CCS, will be needed to reduce emissions across all parts of the energy system," the IEA said.

Asked whether that conclusion still was up-to-date, IEA energy analyst Samantha McCulloch told this website that the "current pace of CCS deployment continues to be out of step with Paris ambitions, notwithstanding recent progress".

Since the publication of the IEA report two "significant large-scale projects have come online in the US", she said.

That means that some 23 large-scale CCS projects are in place or underway.

Only Norway

However, none of them are in the European Union. Only Norway, a non-EU member, has experience with CCS and supports expanding it.

"In Europe we see a lot of antagonism against CCS, which has helped undermine a lot of projects," said Helseth.

"The whole approach in Europe was very much linked to the power industry," he said.

This also meant that CCS was seen by coal companies as a way to produce "clean coal". But, of the fossil fuels, coal is the most damaging to the climate.

"That has led to a lot of people fighting CCS. Certainly in the environmental movement, many of our colleagues have been extremely negative about the technology, because it is seen as a fig leaf for the coal industry to keep burning like there is no tomorrow," said Helseth.

Earlier this year, two European energy companies announced they would be pulling out of a CCS project in the Netherlands. This followed a previous blow to CCS in 2015, when the UK government decided to cut funding for CCS projects.

Helseth is not too mournful about the demise of these projects, because they focused too much on building a single fossil fuel power plant with CCS, while there are viable alternatives - such as renewable energy.

Energy-intensive industries

However, CO2 emissions from industrial processes are more difficult to reduce that way.

"A lot of emissions in Europe come from … energy-intensive industries: steel, cement, chemicals," said Helseth.

He said German industry produces more emissions than the whole country of Portugal, which will make it difficult for Germany to reach its climate targets.

"I don't expect Germany to be prepared to meet those targets by shutting down its heavy industry."

Following the news that the CCS project for coal plants in the Netherlands fell through, the port of Rotterdam announced in June that it would continue with CCS.

Three months later, however, a spokesman for the port told EUobserver that he could not give any details yet, and asked us to contact him again later this year.

Soft touch approach

The European Commission supports CCS, but mostly by making grants available.

In its 2015 Energy Union strategy paper, the EU executive said that a "forward-looking approach to carbon capture and storage" will be "critical to reaching the 2050 climate objectives in a cost-effective way".

However, the topic features much less often in speeches by EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete and Energy Union commissioner Maros Sefcovic than other climate topics like renewable energy.

The deployment of CCS is not featured in any binding EU target, like the share of renewables is.

Meanwhile, the EU's flagship climate tool has also not delivered what had been expected.

There were hopes that the emissions trading scheme would produce a carbon price of dozens of euros per tonne, because the companies that are part of it have to hand in pollution permits for every tonne of CO2 they emit.

But because of a glut of permits - caused by the economic crisis and a set number of politically determined free permits to appease national industries - the price has been around €5 in the past year.

That means there are not enough incentives for industrial companies to set up CCS on their own.

Quite to the contrary, because companies are now being given free pollution permits, called allocations, there is even a disincentive.

"If you stick your neck out as a big industry player, and you say 'I would like to decarbonise with CCS', the risk you have then is that the government is going to say: 'oh, well then you don't need free allocations'," said Helseth.

CCS infrastructure

Helseth also said some kind of public infrastructure needs to be set up.

"The challenge with CCS is that it is not something you can pick up from the shelf. … CCS is an infrastructure that needs to be built, to connect industry to the potential storage sites."

Part of the delay in CCS deployment in Europe, according to Helseth, is that the political debate is focused on achieving the 2030 climate targets - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent - which were agreed to three years ago.

Those emissions reductions are probably achievable without CCS. But for the 2050 target - reducing emissions by between 80 and 95 percent - it will be difficult without CCS.

The problem is that setting up a storage site can take up to ten years.

"Everyone thinks we should to do all the other stuff first and, if you need to, you do CCS at the end," said Helseth. But that "doesn't make sense".

Beyond Norway, there is another place in Europe where CCS is gaining traction again.

Earlier this month, the Scottish government announced that it would provide funding for a feasibility study into CCS in the North Sea.

But soon Scotland, like Norway, will also be outside of the EU because of Brexit.

Over the coming weeks, EUobserver will look at various aspects of CCS in Europe, in a special series of investigative articles. Tips are welcome by sending an e-mail to the author's e-mail address, available under his name at the beginning of the article.

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