Researcher: Carbon removal technologies ‘need to be upscaled quickly’

CO2 capture plant of the company Climeworks at the waste incineration plant in Switzerland, 09 June 2017 [Walter Bieri / EPA]

This article is part of our special report Carbon removals.

As the European Commission looks at creating a certification scheme for carbon removals at the end of this year, it will need to choose which methods to prioritise with a view to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, according to Dr Oliver Geden.

Doctor Oliver Geden is a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security affairs and lead author for the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) Working Group III on climate change mitigation. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor about the EU’s plans to certify carbon removals and how this could work.

The European Commission published its communication on sustainable carbon cycles in December last year, which lays the foundation for carbon removals in Europe. What are your thoughts about it?

I think, overall, it’s positive that the Commission takes on this topic. I think it was good timing to say that, now we have the Fit for 55 package and the second part of the package in December, let’s start this conversation.

We keep forgetting that, after the 2030 legislation is agreed, we will start discussing the 2040 target in the EU  and then start drafting legislation for the 2030s. There, carbon dioxide removal will clearly play a bigger role.

What still amazes so many people is the focus on carbon farming, where many experts don’t see that much of a removal potential.

But I think what many climate experts overlook is the political agenda that the Commission has behind it. That’s connected to making the three pillars we have – the emissions trading scheme (ETS), the effort sharing regulation (ESR) and the land use regulation (LULUCF) – two pillars by creating an ETS for road transport and buildings and merging agriculture and land use together.

This will dissolve the ESR and the carbon farming initiatives will create new revenue streams for the agricultural sector. This is more about internal EU politics than about maximising removal potentials.

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Is there anything missing from the communication?

I was surprised that the Commission also proposed an indicative target for non-LULUCF carbon dioxide removal. This was misread by many commentators as a new EU target, but for that, it would need to be endorsed by the Council and the Parliament. Yet it clearly shows in which direction the Commission wants to go in the long-term.

What I find surprising right now in the negotiations on Fit for 55 is that, in the ESR proposal and in the ETS proposal, technological carbon dioxide removals, like direct air capture with carbon capture and storage, already pops up.

In general, the Commission’s policy is to fund projects under the Innovation Fund first and have those started so that something is happening beyond forestry that can be seriously regulated and have targets in the 2030s. Between the sustainable carbon cycle strategy proposed last year and the certification of methods at the end of this year, there’s a proper pipeline.

Of course, some would say it’s going too fast or there are not enough safeguards. And others, basically the industry, saying it’s going too slow. I think that it’s more or less okay.

You mentioned the certification scheme that the European Commission is planning for carbon removals at the end of 2022 – what are the challenges of putting such a system in place? And what are the key elements you believe it should contain?

You cannot do all methods. Simply for pragmatic reasons, you have to make choices and prioritise. It will be interesting what the choices will be.

For forestry, you have established systems, but you could make them better. But if you look at the discussions around the Commission’s forestry strategy, that might be hard. There might be loopholes. Then there are things that are simply hard to understand in terms of terrestrial carbon flows, which can lead to governments or companies trying to game the system.

Then looking at methods like soil carbon sequestration, where you have dispersed areas where you practice this, it’s not easy to track the carbon and there is also a problem of permanence. So you would have to come up with rules for that. But first of all, how to measure it and then how to deal with possible leakage.

Even more complicated would be something like enhanced mineral weathering. You first deploy the minerals on fields. But in the long term, the carbon bound will go via runoff and rivers into the ocean. You cannot really say 30 years later, now let’s look where the carbon is and how much is there.

So you would need to develop modelling and all the actors would need to trust the modelling. You can get it easily wrong – and nobody’s to blame for that – but you could end up in a situation where you award too much money to the companies doing it, but you’re unable to change the rules later or you give not enough and you don’t incentivise action.

Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture with storage (DACSS) are quite uncomplicated to measure if the carbon is stored geologically. What’s complicated is if you go for the utilisation of that carbon (CCU) and unfortunately sometimes that debate is mixed with the one on removals.

What the verification system would have to deliver is tracking where the carbon stays in the long term. The IPCC’s carbon dioxide removal definition in its special report on 1.5°C says about storing it “durably”, but there is no agreed definition for “durably”.

The European Commission and then the Parliament and Council would have to come up with a threshold for durability and rules on how to deal with carbon that gets released earlier.

EU plans certification scheme for carbon dioxide removals

The European Commission will publish a policy paper by the end of the year on “the sustainable management of the carbon cycle” – the first step towards an EU-wide certification scheme for negative emissions coming from agriculture, forestry and other sources, that will be tabled in 2022.

Do you think it would be better for the European Commission to regulate voluntary markets or to set up an ETS-style market for carbon removals?

There are many options on how to design that. I haven’t made up my own mind about this, but I think keeping it separate for now and then creating rules on who could use it and against which obligations might be the best way to go.

There’s a lot of action in the voluntary market. The question is does the EU want to influence that as well? In the compliance markets, setting up a verification and certification system can serve as an example for other countries.

I’m not sure if political actors in the European Union want to interfere in voluntary markets in terms of setting rules as far as I know. Australia has such a system. They have accounting rules that then apply on the voluntary market, but I never heard an actor in Europe seriously talking about that.

Politically it would be wise to simply set binding rules and also to bring carbon dioxide removals out of that notion that they are just offsets of a questionable nature, where companies use them to reach net zero targets on paper.

One politically complicated issue is that, since the 2050 target is a Union-wide target, and since the level of residual emissions will be quite different among sectors and member states, it will create a lot of uneven distribution across Europe.

Ireland, for example, has 33% of its emissions coming from agriculture. If Ireland doesn’t want to change the role of agriculture in its economy, it won’t be able to get to net zero.

It will not only be the usual suspects in European climate policy that might be above net zero in 2050 and asking other countries to go net negative. Politically, that might not be a problem if the removals are in the ETS because it is a Europe-wide harmonised system without national targets.

But if you still have the three pillars, including net negative ESR targets for countries, that might get you into dangerous waters politically. Because then people in Germany would say why should we be going net negative just because Ireland wants to keep its agricultural sector unchanged?

How do you think the governance of carbon removal should work? Should there be a mechanism for liability or penalties?

There should be a liability and it should lie with those being credited, so that will usually be companies.

The second problem, of course, is the possible side effects of removal methods – how do we regulate that governance-wise? What do you want to exclude?

I don’t think that BECCS will play such a big role as it does in models, but there will be such installations. One is being funded by Innovation Fund money in Sweden. That’s an interesting example, looking at feedstocks we use and what their carbon balance is. And I think you could argue that the bioenergy sustainability rules that Europe has leave some room for improvement.

If it’s long-term storage where you award companies for a long time, there will be issues if you change the rules. There will be the question of whether companies can keep the money they got.

You should not fall into the trap of saying we need a certain amount by 2050. We should take it seriously. We should upscale fast. But we should ensure that the rules are the right ones and that we have scope for changing them if we see we were in uncharted territory and know better after, say, ten years.

We’ve also seen carbon removals talked about at the UN level. It was mentioned in COP26 with the discussions around Article 6. What will the EU need to do to create legislation on the EU level that is recognised by the UN and is there enough decided at the UN level to guide the EU on this?

I don’t think there will be an oversupply of carbon removal created within the EU, quite the contrary. At some point, we will get a discussion in the European Union about buying certificates. Right now, the 2050 target is designed as a complete domestic target system and I think it’s achievable domestically. I would expect that at some point we might discuss additional removals, hopefully with strong additionality criteria, buying Article 6-like certificates.

Forestry would be really problematic because the accounting is quite weak, globally. There’s a lot of room for gaming the system. But if you could say that not many countries are doing direct capture with CCS or with very long-lived products, maybe you could say that’s really additional.

When you discuss trading carbon removals, you also hit the issue of double counting. How can the European Union ensure traded removals are effective?

Within the intra-European compliance regime, double counting would probably not be a problem. From a state-centred view, if we get the regulation applicable to all methods and in all pillars, we shouldn’t be overly concerned with companies greenwashing. It’s just PR then, it doesn’t change legal obligations.

I think that’s more of a problem in countries like the US, where there will not be strict rules on a federal level. But I’m not overly concerned with company claims as long as there is a compliance market.

The interface between CCU and carbon removal is also going to be key. Because you could use direct air capture to get CO2 for sustainable aviation fuels, but at the same time, fossil-fueled installations try to sell captured CO2 as carbon neutral components for sustainable aviation fuels. Between the two, there’s a huge difference.

What are the next steps in building up technical solutions? How much capacity are you expecting over the next three decades to 2050?

I don’t think anybody knows. But I think this group of technologies is not that different from other technologies we look at in climate policy. One difference is that we don’t have focused research, development, and demonstration programmes yet. They have them in the UK now – we will get to that in the EU and its Member States.

At some point, Europe needs to make a decision about what are the top three technological approaches we are putting our bets on, but again, it would be way too early to do that.

There are many trials. It’s still tiny. It needs to be upscaled quickly because we know we will need some of it. But nobody knows the exact numbers, since nobody knows the exact numbers for residual emissions in 2050.

While there’s a vision of going net negative after 2050, no targets have been set yet. There’s no need to set them yet. But we don’t know how far we want to go into net negative. That trajectory is unclear and, because of that, it’s better to create some learning effects to get an idea of what’s realistic in the long-run.

Europe aims to scale up infrastructure for permanent carbon removals

The European Commission is looking at ways of building up infrastructure for transporting and permanently storing CO2 underground as well as recycling carbon into new products.


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