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24th Sep 2018

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EU-China cooperation on CO2 storage lost in limbo

  • From left to right: European Council president Donald Tusk, Chinese premier Li Keqiang, and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, at the July 2018 EU-China summit. A long-standing partnership on carbon capture and storage was not discussed. (Photo: European Commission)

Last month, the leaders of the European Commission and the European Council and the premier of China signed off on a declaration on climate change and clean energy, at a summit in Beijing.

"We have underlined our joint, strong determination to fight climate change and demonstrate global leadership," said commission president Jean-Claude Juncker about the statement.

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  • Statoil's Sleipner gas facility near Norway, which uses CCS to prevent CO2 emissions in the air (Photo: Kjetil Alsvik/Statoil)

"There is no time for us to sit back and watch passively. Now is the time for decisive action," he noted.

The declaration said that the two sides would "further strengthen their bilateral cooperation" on nine areas, including emissions trading, long-term strategies, and energy savings.

But the eight-page statement hardly mentioned a topic which was central to EU-China climate cooperation a decade ago: carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Through the technique of CCS, greenhouse gas emissions are captured and liquefied, and subsequently stored – so that they do not trap heat in the earth's atmosphere.

The 2018 statement said EU and China agreed "to enhance their collaboration on climate-related scientific research and cooperation on technology innovation, including the development and deployment of low greenhouse gas emission technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), and adaptation solutions".

But that was a far cry from the EU-China declaration on climate change agreed on 2 September 2005, when the two sides committed to "develop and demonstrate in China and the EU advanced, near-zero emissions coal technology through carbon capture and storage" by 2020.

Working towards that goal has clearly fallen off the political agenda - not in the least because CCS uptake in the EU itself has been slow.

The EU-China cooperation project on CCS was marred with delays, as EUobserver showed in an investigation based partially on internal papers released following an access to documents request last year.

The plan was to see an EU co-financed CCS coal plant operational in China in 2020.

"Progress on the project has been difficult right from the start, due to work programme changes, slow correspondence in communication and intermittent periods of project implementation," said an external evaluation about the project written in 2013.

As recent as February 2016, the highest EU civil servant in charge of climate action was still very much committed to the project.

"If the EU does not go ahead with its long-promised support towards CCS demonstration in China, there is a significant risk that the EU's commitment to CCS as a technology and to climate action will be severely criticised by stakeholders and the public," wrote Jos Delbeke, who was then director-general of directorate-general Climate Action in an internal note.

But in 2017 the commission found that the two Chinese companies that were considered to carry out EU-funded feasibility studies had "lost interest" in the cooperation – the Chinese firms had gone ahead and paid for those studies themselves.

The European side then told China that they could not finance a study that was already paid for.

Dialogue

As a solution, the EU proposed to "reorient the EU-China CCUS cooperation to a policy and expert dialogue".

(The 'U' is now added in the acronym because recently the EU has opened up to the possibilities of recycling CO2 rather than merely storing it, called carbon capture and utilisation.)

A letter from the European Commission to China dated 27 July 2017 listed some of the possible topics of that dialogue, like experience with the EU's CCS directive, and "how to offer comprehensive, streamlined procedures for CO2 storage projects approval and monitoring".

It also said that the commission would be honoured to receive Chinese representatives in 2018.

"We will come back to you with a concrete proposal and invitation during autumn 2017," it said.

Another internal commission email, sent that same month, informed colleagues of the proposed next steps.

"As a next step we promised an invitation to a CCS event in the EU next year (likely the Brussels CCS conference in spring), where policy dialogue can continue," the email said.

Silence

However, EUobserver's access to documents request revealed that no invitation was sent in autumn 2017.

A new access to documents request, to which the commission replied on 29 June 2018, even came back empty – which means that in the first half of the year, the commission neither sent nor received a single email about the topic. There is no evidence of any CCS conference held in Brussels in spring.

A spokesman for the Council of the EU told EUobserver that the EU-China CCS project "was not discussed by leaders during the summit" in Beijing last month, and referred to the commission for more information about the project's future.

EUobserver asked the commission for an update about the status of the EU-China dialogue; whether an invitation had been sent yet; what the next steps were; and why the issue was not raised at the summit.

A commission spokeswoman said that the commission had nothing to say until early September.

Investigation

After spending €587 million, EU has zero CO2 storage plants

The EU has spent at least €587 million so far on carbon capture and storage, and was willing to spend millions more. However, after a decade not a single power plant in the EU is currently using the technology.

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