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.
The European Commission put forward a circular economy action plan last year to tackle this problem, aiming to cut down on waste while supporting reuse and recycling.
However, Europe is still a long way off from an economy where materials are recycled and reused circularly. Many materials cannot be recycled, such as those containing substances that could contaminate other materials.
Instead of being landfilled or shipped abroad – the two least desirable options – residual waste is often burned in waste-to-energy plants. In doing so, they produce energy and recover certain materials, like metals.
But while incineration is widely regarded as a better solution for the environment than landfills, waste-to-energy plants still produce emissions that contribute to global warming.
This is where carbon capture and storage technology comes in. CCS would allow plants to continue incinerating waste, but the emissions would be captured and transported to a storage site underground.
If the incinerator uses waste of biological origin, some even say CCS could reach negative emissions by taking more carbon from the atmosphere than is produced.
“We will not be able to reuse and recycle everything for a long time. Residual waste is there, and hence the emissions from incineration will be there,” said Eve Tamme, founder and managing director at Climate Principles, which advises on climate policy.
“One very obvious solution to that is to capture those emissions and transport and store them in geological formations, where they will be stored for thousands of years,” she said at an event last week organised by ESWET, the European Association representing the Suppliers of Waste-to-Energy Technology.
Carbon capture technology is still in the early phases of development. Still, one waste-to-energy plant in Norway has set up a pilot project, which it aims to have fully operational by 2025.
Fortum Oslo Varme, a waste-to-energy plant that provides district heating to the Norwegian capital, hopes to be the world’s first full-scale CCS project fitted to a waste-to-energy plant.
The goal is to capture 400,000 tonnes of CO2 every year – about 90% of the plant’s total emissions – and transport this to permanent storage below the North Sea.
“This will be replicable to a lot of the other waste to energy plants in Europe,” said Jannicke Bjerkås, carbon capture and storage director at Fortum Oslo Varme.
“I don’t really see any disadvantages, because this is an important technology, it’s a very effective climate measure. It’s very important for cities to address their large emission points dealing with their waste from the cities”.
In Europe, there are over 500 incinerators, and many of them will need to look at carbon capture and storage technology to meet the EU’s climate and environmental goals, said Bjerkås. All the larger plants in Norway have started exploring this, she added.
However, some key challenges still need to be addressed.
Firstly, the location and size of the plant need to be considered. For instance, it may not be cost-effective for smaller plants to adopt carbon capture technology.
Meanwhile, larger plants need to have access to transport and storage infrastructure for the CO2. In Oslo, the captured carbon will be stored in tankers until it is transported by road to a port facility. From there, it will be picked up by boat to an offshore pipe system, where it will be injected beneath the seabed.
The project has been made and is part of a full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) project named ‘Longship’ funded by the Norwegian state.
But to coordinate CO2 transport and storage infrastructure on an EU level, there needs to be a strategy in place. And that can only come from the European Commission, Tamme said.
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem – you would want to have a network in place so that you can make the decision to start capturing from your plants. But then you cannot really have a network in place unless there is CO2 being captured that you can then use that network to transport and store,” she explained.
Early signs there are positive, with the European Commission confirming two years ago that future EU funding for CCS would focus on developing transport infrastructure like CO2 pipelines.
Funding is also available under the EU’s Innovation Fund, which draws money from the bloc’s carbon market, the Emissions Trading Scheme. Fortum Oslo applied last year, and the project made it to the final shortlist of candidates for financing from the EU’s €1 billion Innovation Fund in March.
Another challenge is to reduce costs. Currently, projects require public funding to get off the ground, but other ways could be developed to support the technology.
A higher carbon price on the ETS, for instance, could provide a boost for the technology, according to Bjerkås.
“If we were to solely cover the cost of carbon capture and storage by, for example, the emissions trading scheme price, today we would need to see a price of about €150. But these are the early demonstration projects. So the cost will come down, and the cost of emitting CO2 will have to rise,” she added.
The EU’s growing focus on carbon removals, and moves to create a separate market for them, could also generate another stream of funding as companies look to offset their emissions.
> Watch the full recording of the debate on YouTube below:
[Edited by Frédéric Simon/ Alice Taylor]