Europe aims to scale up infrastructure for permanent carbon removals

The CO2 capture plant run by Climeworks at a waste incineration plant in Switzerland [Walter Bieri / EPA]

This article is part of our special report 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.

With its European Climate Law adopted last year, the EU has set in stone an objective of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century.

But even if emissions can be brought down close to zero, there will always be residual emissions from agriculture or industrial processes which cannot be fully abated, according to the European Commission.

This is why any carbon emissions remaining in Europe by 2050 will have to be balanced by removals, “with the aim to achieve negative emissions thereafter,” the EU executive said in a policy paper on ‘Sustainable Carbon Cycles’ published in December.

“Carbon removals will need to play a growing role, and become the main focus of action after climate neutrality is achieved and when negative emissions will be needed to stabilise the world’s temperature increase,” the EU executive said.

For the time being, carbon removals are performed essentially by natural ecosystems – mainly oceans, and forests which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

But forests are themselves falling victim of climate change, with growing incidence of fires and pests, which increases the risk that the removals will not be permanent.

This is why scientists say technological solutions will be needed too. The problem is that the CO2 removal technologies are still in their infancy.

“It’s very, very, very limited. We are almost at zero, but we need to go towards deployment and, in 2050, we need large scale deployment,” a Commission official told EURACTIV.

There are already some examples of technological solutions. Last year in Iceland, a Swiss start-up called Climeworks AG opened the world’s largest plant that sucks carbon dioxide directly from the air. Meanwhile, Norway has a pilot project for a full-scale carbon capture and storage project fitted to a waste-to-energy plant.

World's largest plant capturing carbon from air starts in Iceland

The world’s largest plant that sucks carbon dioxide directly from the air and deposits it underground is due to start operating on Wednesday (8 September), the company behind the nascent green technology said.

However, these projects are small compared to the capacity the world will need.

By 2030, the EU executive has set an aspirational target for technology-based solutions to remove 5 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, far more than the 4,000 tons of CO2 that Climeworks AG is able to capture every year.

This is tiny compared to the binding target of 310 million tonnes of carbon that the European Commission wants to capture from nature-based solutions by 2030. But the EU executive sees this as a signal to the market that technology-based removals are something it wants to grow.

“Targets themselves are just targets. What [matters] now is how we implement those targets,” said Eve Tamme, managing director at the policy group Climate Principles.

Europe now faces the question of how to scale up carbon capturing technology and how to put the right incentives and policies in place, Tamme told EURACTIV.

To allow this scaling up, the EU needs to bring in rules to quantify carbon removals, says Tamme. This is challenging, however, because while policymakers have been working on emissions reductions for a long time, there has been a lot less work on removals.

“Europe is literally the first in the world who is trying to figure it out. And if they do figure it out, this will hopefully become a gold standard that is going to be used more broadly,” Tamme told EURACTIV.

New infrastructure for CO2 transport

One challenge in scaling up technology-based carbon capture is having the correct infrastructure in place.

While nature-based solutions require very little additional infrastructure, technical solutions require CO2 to be transported via pipeline, water, rail or road from where it is captured to where it can be utilised or permanently stored.

But, at the moment, there is very little infrastructure designed to transport CO2 to permanent removal sites or recycling processes.

“We need to build out the transport network,” a Commission official told EURACTIV.

“The challenges of CO2 transport don’t stem from the envisioned means for transport. The challenges for a successful deployment are of economic and regulatory nature and often referred to as the chicken-and-egg problem,” according to a Commission document attached to its communication on sustainable carbon cycles.

One area that could crack this chicken-and-egg problem is the region around the North Sea. There are already several carbon removal projects in this area, including one in the Port of Antwerp, where carbon would be captured and stored underground using Norway’s Northern Lights programme.

Northern Lights, also based around the North Sea, aims to ship carbon to a storage facility and then pipe it to permanent storage in a reservoir 2,600 metres under the seabed.

Other projects include carbon capture, usage and storage at a cement factory in France and a biomass district heating system in Stockholm that aims to use carbon capture and storage to reach negative emissions.

“It’s a very specific European model that we are developing for carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and usage – that you have capture facilities, facilities that use the CO2 and facilities that store final CO2,” a Commission official told EURACTIV.

“To have a liquid, well-functioning market, we need a sufficient number of market participants, both to provide the CO2, to capture the CO2, [and] to transport the CO2,” he added.

“We have both pipelines and ships. And then we also need a sufficient number of storage sites so that we have competitive pressure on all sides, but also enough trust from all market participants that there will be enough storage, that there will be enough CO2 that’s captured,” the official continued.

There are still arrangements that need to be put in place for such a market. For instance, EU countries will need to allow CO2 to be shipped between countries. Storage facilities, meanwhile, will need non-discrimination policies to allow carbon to come from different countries.

EU clarifies funding scope for CO2 capture technology

The European Commission has clarified how it intends to support carbon capture and storage (CCS), a key technology in the fight against global warming, which supporters say will enable deep emission cuts in heavy industries such as cement, steel and petrochemicals.

Funding innovation

Investments from EU pots of money, like the Innovation Fund, are already helping carbon capture projects grow. Other funding comes from the private sector, like Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund.

According to Casper Klynge, Vice-President of European Government Affairs at Microsoft, the challenges surrounding carbon removals are immense and there is a lot of work needed in both nature-based and technology-based solutions.

“Technology-based solutions are still in their infancy and need scaling,” Klynge said at the European Commission’s conference on carbon removals last month.

“In short, today there is no real existing scalable carbon removal ecosystem and the world must build a new market on an unprecedented timeline. And let’s be honest, starting from almost scratch,” he added.

Microsoft plans to be carbon negative by 2030 and, by 2050, aims to have removed all of the emissions it put into the atmosphere since its founding in 1975. It has already purchased 1.4 million metric tonnes of carbon removals from 15 suppliers to help achieve this.

However, Mark Preston Aragonès, warned against what he called the “hype” around carbon removals, saying that the conversation around these is heading in the wrong direction, with companies looking at how much they can offset rather than how many emissions they can reduce.

“Buying an offset shouldn’t be seen as ‘check me out – I’m carbon neutral, I bought offsets’. It should be seen as shame in the sense that ‘I’m still emitting, so I have to offset’,” he told EURACTIV.

Instead of being driven by demand, the conversation should be driven by the capacity of carbon removals that can be supplied and focus on unavoidable emissions, he added.

“When it comes to reducing emissions, the role of carbon capture and storage is quite important for those sectors where there might not be any near term viable alternatives and where the actual process is where the CO2 comes from, not necessarily the combustion of a fuel, so cement and steel, for example, where it’s actually the processing, which contribute as well to global warming,” he explained.

He also advocated for a focus on carbon capture and storage, rather than direct air capture because CCS takes the carbon directly out of the chimneys of polluting factories rather than from the air, where the carbon is highly diluted.

“When it comes to direct air capture, that is a bit harder in the sense that it’s much harder to capture the CO2 from the atmosphere than it is from flue gas. On balance, we should be deploying CCS first,” said Preston Aragonès.

A circular economy for carbon

Another potential revenue stream for carbon removals is through a circular economy for carbon. Much of 21st century life is dependent on products and materials made from carbon, from fuel and food to plastic and clothes. These cannot be decarbonised, so producers need to source carbon from non-fossil sources.

However, this could put pressure on land use, so the European Commission is exploring the idea of a circular economy for carbon to provide a non-fossil source for carbon products.

“We need to deploy technologies that recycle carbon from waste, from sustainable biomass or directly from the atmosphere to provide the industry with circular carbon because carbon will remain necessary for our industry,” said EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans last month.

This would require a huge shift away from current carbon sources. In 2018, the EU economy consumed approximately one billion tonnes of carbon, just over half of which was from fossil sources. Only a fraction of that carbon is from recycled origin.

If we fail to make this change, “we are simply adding more fossil carbon in the technosphere creating a gigantic carbon dept that is just waiting to be emitted, either through biodegradation, natural degradation or through incineration,” warned Florian Vernay, Head of Communications, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Unilever.

Carbon capture: Europe's trump card for waste treatment?

Europe has a waste problem. In 2018, over two million tonnes of rubbish was treated in the EU, with just under half of this going to landfills, where it releases climate-damaging methane emissions.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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