Carbon Capture and Storage – EU climate policy’s gaping hole

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The case for CCS: This is the amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere by human activity every day in 2012, with the Statue of Liberty to scale. [Carbon Visuals/Flickr]

Carbon Capture and Storage has suffered numerous setbacks in Europe, but its deployment is essential to keeping CO2 levels within manageable levels and to the attainment of the Paris climate goals, warns Chris Davies.

Chris Davies was the CCS rapporteur in the European Parliament and is a member of the UK’s parliamentary advisory group on CCS. He is an advisor to Fleishman Hillard in Brussels.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) speaks the world listens. Its assessment reports are tablets of stone that provide the doctrine for climate policy in Europe and elsewhere.

Yet while the IPCC’s words are sometimes cited as holy writ, others get ignored. Politics and prejudice get in the way of science. How else to explain Europe’s failure to heed the advice on carbon capture and storage (CCS)?

The global cost of the mitigation measures necessary to keep atmospheric CO2 concentration levels by 2100 to 450ppm will increase by 138% unless CCS is deployed, pronounced the IPCC in its 2014 synthesis report.

It continued: “Many models cannot reach 450ppm CO2-equivalent concentration by 2100 in the absence of carbon capture and storage.”

A cost increase of 138% is not something that should easily be dismissed, but it has been. Within the EU only the Dutch government is still actively supporting plans for a CCS demonstration project.

The European Commission’s CCS team has been reduced to a few part-timers with a watching brief. The personal support of Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete has not been sufficient to overcome the indifference or hostility of member state governments.

Something akin to a coup de grace was delivered last November when the then UK finance minister, George Osborne, withdrew his government’s promise to provide £1 billion to support CCS capital costs.  Long-term subsidies would be “too expensive” it was later explained.

Engineering studies had given the thumbs up to capturing CO2 from a gas power station at Peterhead and a new coal-fired facility at Drax, the UK’s largest power plant. The Commission had announced that €300 million from its NER300 funding mechanism would be available to support the latter scheme.

The cancellation shock was all the greater because final investment decisions were close and expected to be positive. In the UK there is cross-party political support for the principle of CCS and virtually no public opposition, thanks to the ample availability of CO2 storage sites in geological formations beneath the North Sea.

With its CCS policy gone, the government agreed to the setting up of a small advisory group to suggest ways forward. With a membership of academic, industry and finance experts, together with political representatives, it published its report last month.

We started by exploring whether CCS is really necessary and quickly concluded that it is and that work should commence immediately. It may be possible to avoid its use in electricity production, although decarbonising power supply will be easier if the technology is deployed, but the Paris goals also require huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from industry and from methane heating systems.

No other technology exists to achieve the necessary reductions from the steel, cement, refinery and chemicals sectors, while the conversion of natural gas to hydrogen for heating will release CO2 as a byproduct that must be captured and sequestrated.

In addition, CCS is uniquely important in being able not only to reduce CO2 emissions but, combined with the use of biofuels, also to reduce its atmospheric concentration.

We went on to ask why, when the IPCC says that CCS will save money, its deployment seems so expensive. The UK government was right to criticise the cancelled schemes as too expensive, but we found the cause to be the huge margins to cover risks and liabilities factored in by the private sector.

We proposed instead the creation of a state agency, something akin to that created to deliver the 2012 London Olympics, that will take the lead in building the first pipelines, opening up storage sites, and letting contracts for new CCS-equipped gas power stations. Subsidies for CCS-equipped power generation could then be lower than those provided for nuclear energy and comparable to offshore wind, with costs reducing over time.

With pipelines available, it will become possible to deploy CCS more widely. The technology has the potential to be storing 15% of UK CO2 emissions by 2030, and up to 40% by 2050.  It is essential that UK ministers adopt a new strategy for its promotion.

Why has CCS not taken off across Europe? EU governments have had it easy so far. The real challenge in reducing emissions will not be to meet the 2030 targets but to fulfil the ambitions for 2050 and beyond. When governments are required to prepare plans for this they may start to appreciate the need to invest in CCS.

Or – to put it another way – the IPCC is right.