Growing momentum behind carbon capture can make it a new clean energy success story

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg. [EPA-EFE/Hakon Mosvold Larsen]

Governments and companies have the chance today to turn carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) into a clean energy success story that will bring environmental and economic benefits worldwide. Without it, our energy and climate goals will become almost impossible to reach, write Erna Solberg and Fatih Birol.

Erna Solberg is the prime minister of Norway. Fatih Birol is the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Norway just marked a major milestone in the development of carbon capture, utilisation and storage – a vital technology area for achieving international energy and climate goals.

CCUS technologies enable us to catch CO2 emissions and reuse or geologically store them so they can’t contribute to climate change. This will be important for reducing emissions across the global energy system – from power plants to cement factories and hydrogen production – and can also help to balance emissions that cannot be avoided.

The Norwegian government’s commitment last week of 16.8 billion kroner ($1.8 billion) for the “Longship” project shows the way forward in terms of technology and scale. Longship will capture CO2 from a cement plant and a waste-to-energy plant for transport to the Northern Lights storage facility deep under the North Sea.

Northern Lights will be able to receive CO2 captured in neighbouring European countries, thereby playing an important role in meeting not just Norway’s but the region’s ambitious climate goals.

Norway makes second attempt at carbon capture 'moon landing' project

Norway will finance two-thirds of a large-scale project to capture and store carbon dioxide – its second attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a plan that was previously touted as the oil-producing country’s moon landing.

Norway has been demonstrating for decades that carbon capture technologies aren’t science fiction: the Sleipner offshore gas project was the first CO2 storage project in the world and has been operating since 1996. Another project, Snøhvit, has been running since 2008.

Today there are still only around 20 commercial CCUS operations globally – nowhere near the amount required to put the world on a sustainable path, according to IEA analysis. The good news is that through smart policies, investments and international cooperation, governments and companies across the globe can give CCUS the boost it needs.

Achieving that rapid growth in CCUS will be crucial for meeting our climate challenge for four key reasons.

First, there are industries such as cement where CCUS is virtually the only technology that can achieve the kind of deep emission reductions necessary for reaching net zero. The Norcem cement plant in Brevik, Norway, could become the first in the world to apply CCUS.

Second, CCUS can help tackle emissions from existing energy assets, such as steel mills and power plants, that could otherwise emit 600 billion tonnes of CO2 over the next five decades – almost 17 years’ worth of today’s global emissions.

Third, CCUS can support a rapid scaling up of low-carbon hydrogen, another key element for reaching energy and climate goals thanks to its ability to help reduce emissions across the power, transport, industry and buildings sectors.

This low-carbon hydrogen would come from electrolysers fuelled by clean electricity or from fossil-based production that is equipped with CCUS. In Europe, there are plans for CCUS-equipped hydrogen production in at least five locations.

Fourth, some emissions are too difficult or expensive to address directly, and CCUS provides an important approach for removing CO2 from the atmosphere to achieve a balance of emissions and removal by sinks.

This is where the “net” in net-zero emissions comes from. Combining CCUS with bioenergy and technologies that can pull CO2 directly from the air could play an important role here. Capturing and storing carbon emissions from waste incineration is a notable example, as waste management is a growing industry, despite efforts to bring about a circular economy.

With this in mind, the Norwegian government intends to provide substantial funding for Fortum Oslo Varme’s waste incineration facility with carbon capture in Oslo – providing the company can secure sufficient financing from other sources.

These four main ways that CCUS can make a difference across many industries demonstrate its Swiss army knife qualities. Meanwhile, stronger climate targets and investment incentives around the world are building new momentum behind CCUS after years of slow progress and insufficient investment.

Plans for more than 30 commercial CCUS facilities have been announced in the last three years, mainly in Europe and the United States, where new policy incentives are available – but also in Australia, China, Korea, the Middle East and New Zealand.

And projects now nearing a final investment decision represent an estimated potential investment of around USD 27 billion – more than double the investment planned in 2017.

Meet Europe’s two ‘most exciting’ CO2 capture and storage projects

A plan to pipe CO2 emissions from industries around the Port of Rotterdam and a hydrogen transport hub in the north of England have been branded as “the most exciting in Europe”, although promoters admit both will need substantial government backing to materialise.

Norway has very strong CCUS research and development institutions, and has been active in sharing its experience and expertise with the world. This kind of cooperation – across borders, and between government and industry – is critical if CCUS is to grow at the pace needed to meet climate goals. The IEA is committed to playing an important role in those efforts.

Markets will not make this happen on their own. But this is a familiar hurdle for important clean energy technologies. For example, the first investments in offshore wind were considered too costly.

Now, thanks to supportive policies and technological advances, it’s a rapidly growing source of clean power around the world whose costs are falling precipitously. It’s time to put CCUS on the same path.

Governments and companies have the chance today to turn CCUS into a clean energy success story that will bring environmental and economic benefits worldwide. Without it, our energy and climate goals will become almost impossible to reach.

World’s first zero-emission cement plant takes shape in Norway

Norway is getting closer to building the world’s first carbon-free cement plant, a move that could reverberate across the globe as 197 countries meet for the UN’s annual climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

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