Keeping global warming below 2°C will be “more difficult, a lot more expensive, and a lot more delayed” without carbon capture and storage (CCS) – even with the sharp fall in renewable energy costs taken into account, Prof. Mike Norton told EURACTIV in an interview.
Prof. Mike Norton is Environment Programme Director at the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, plus Norway and Switzerland.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor, Frédéric Simon, on the sidelines of the Brussels presentation of EASAC’s latest report: “Negative emission technologies: What role in meeting the Paris Agreement targets”.
- Current policies are “not strict enough” to avoid a “huge” delivery gap with the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement;
- Meeting those targets without CCS will be “more difficult, a lot more expensive, and a lot more delayed”;
- Renewable energies are helping to bridge “a bit of the gap” but not enough;
- The price of fitting CCS on coal-fired power stations “may still be cheaper than solar” power, probably not wind;
- Support for CCS transport infrastructure has to be considered as a public good for heavy industries like cement, steel and chemicals.
CCS first caught the attention of the general public in 2006, when Al Gore promoted the technology in his film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, seen as a milestone in the global fight against climate change. Since then, CCS has experienced many setbacks, mainly related to its high costs. What progress has been made since those early days? Has the technology matured?
The progress that was made in the last ten years in the European Union has been very much at the policy level of recognising the importance of CCS, and setting up structures for collaboration between EU member states in developing demonstration projects needed to bring the technology to a commercial stage.
EASAC did a report on CCS in 2013, which was at the height of the positive approach to CCS where milestones were set up by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and within the EU. Member states were supposed to tap into some innovation funds in the European Commission as well as national funds.
And the idea was that by now there would be several demonstration projects – maybe six or seven – in different parts of the Union, which would be tackling some of the technological challenges and try to get the cost down to a level where we could say reliably how it can be applied and how much it would cost.
And all of those have run into different roadblocks. The only one remaining involves taking carbon dioxide out of a natural gas field, which has a special economic case in its favour. But all the ones involving taking CO2 out of power stations and industry – they’ve all ran into the sand, and have all been cancelled.
Does that mean there is no business case for CCS today?
There is no business case for CCS in the climate imposed by the current economic system and current government regulations.
Now, the reasons for that are twofold: firstly, there is no economic incentive in terms of a reward for reducing carbon – the carbon price is still very low. Even though it’s gone up a little bit – around €10 per tonne as we speak – it’s still one quarter or one fifth of what it would need to be to drive CCS for economic reasons.
And the second is that governments have been trying to avoid public expenditure and have therefore been placing a large burden of risk on private actors which are developing these projects. And that has added substantially to the costs.
So you’re getting a conflict between the long-term emission reduction targets and the short-term drivers which are just failing to make progress.
CCS was initially seen as a way of making coal clean, especially in China. But since then the economics of renewable energy have turned that around completely. Isn’t that the fundamental misunderstanding about CCS – that it was an attempt at making coal clean when in fact the technology is not just about that?
Indeed, CCS is not just about coal. And it’s actually arguable whether CCS makes coal clean – it makes it less dirty but it doesn’t make it clean.
In terms of the economics, carbon dioxide emissions are an externality for which coal should pay. And at the moment it doesn’t pay, or at least it doesn’t pay enough. So I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong in seeing CCS as a way of making coal pay its way.
And the price of fitting CCS on coal-fired power stations may still be cheaper than solar, although wind prices have come down and may have the advantage.
So you’re saying CCS for coal power stations could still make sense?
Well, I think it has to make sense. If you want to mitigate your emissions, you’ve got to stop emitting them. And allowing coal-fired power stations to continue emitting CO2 without an appropriate cost penalty to drive emission reduction is where we are at the moment.
And it’s not just coal. There is some uncertainty about coal because some EU member states have said they wouldn’t be using coal after 2020 or 2025. So nobody wants to put CCS on a coal-fired power station that has only got a ten-year life ahead. But many member states have not taken such a pledge. So you have to drive the pressure for reducing emissions.
And if you develop CCS you have to think of it not just in terms of coal but also in terms of other heavy emitters like cement, steel and the chemicals industry.
With the falling cost of renewables, the economics of fitting CCS onto coal plants may not make sense anymore. And that leaves other sectors, like cement, steel and chemicals, which are hard to electrify. Is this where you see most of the potential now?
That’s right. But I’m not sure whether your basic starting point is accurate in the light of current emission targets.
One of the first conclusions of EASAC’s report on negative emission technologies is that current emissions targets are not strict enough to avoid a huge gap between where we need to be to comply with the Paris Agreement and where we are heading at the moment.
So, our major message is that mitigation strategies are not strong enough. And if you accept that, then even if you say that temporarily renewable energies are helping us bridge a bit of the gap, we’re saying it’s not enough and you still need to look at how you can get CO2 out of those major emitters.
So from a climate perspective, you see CCS not as a distraction but as a clear necessity?
Well, the most recent study that came in just before EASAC published its report was by Prof. Paul Ekins of London University, who did a revised estimate of the relative importance of CCS in meeting various targets.
And that really confirmed earlier studies which say that without CCS, meeting those emissions targets is not just more difficult, it’s a lot more expensive and a lot more delayed.
So the most recent econometric studies still justify a priority for CCS.
You mentioned during the presentation of EASAC’s report today that this was a race against time for meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement. Can CCS be deployed on a sufficiently large scale and sufficiently quickly to make a significant contribution?
That’s always the main question with any low-carbon technology – can we deploy it fast enough?
But even it can’t be deployed as fast as we’d like, it’s still faster than not doing anything at all! You can’t always aim for a hole in one. You sometimes have to see how far you can get and, once you’re there, see what more you can do.
I don’t see the argument that we can’t get a hole in one as a reason for not trying to make some progress in that direction.
Among the negative emissions technologies reviewed in the EASAC report, CCS appears to be standing at the centre, as a fundamental element for others. So you see CCS as a necessary technology?
CCS is not a Negative Emission Technology as such – some scientists on our review panel even said we were only confusing people by listing it among the other NETs.
But we did explain why in our report: Essentially, without CCS, you end up with an even bigger gap which means you have an even bigger demand to find some way of removing CO2 out of the atmosphere through technologies which we concluded aren’t going to do the job. So it’s linked to a whole debate.
The consequence of having this stall or hiatus in Europe with CCS development and demonstration is that we aren’t engaged in the classic innovation curve of new technology – which involves learning by doing with competitive evaluation of different technologies, learning on the different engineering challenges and overcoming them. You normally go through a learning curve which leads to significant cost reductions or a least to a greater reliability in the technology. And we haven’t got that going for CCS at the moment.
And in Europe there is nothing even close to being approved. The only projects currently going on are in America – one funded by the ‘clean coal’ industry and one in Boundary Dam, California. And those are at the scale of the million tonnes per annum, so they’re quite small. And they’re actually encountering technical problems affecting the efficiency and costs of the removals.
But if you don’t overcome those problems, you don’t have a mature technology and you enter a Catch-22 situation where people say ‘We don’t have a mature technology so we’re not going to apply it’. And if you don’t apply it, you don’t get a mature technology, so you’re in a vicious circle at the moment.
And you say precious time has been lost…
We’ve lost precious time, on more than one count. Because if CCS were to be seen as an economic opportunity one day, we would have also lost a potential economic advantage to other countries – Canada, America and maybe Australia – who are currently developing that technology.
And in the meantime, the growing emissions gap with the Paris targets leaves more CO2 to be sucked from the atmosphere, potentially.
…and there is nothing currently up to the job, basically. Our report shows that some negative emission technologies work. But the current estimates are that all of them would be a lot more difficult and a lot more expensive than CCS in preventing the CO2 from being release into the air in the first place.
So there is a logical inconsistency in delaying mitigation in the hope that you’re going to be able to suck up the CO2 later.
If you had a recommendation for policymakers on CCS here in Europe, what would it be?
What came out of the EASAC analyses – which were informed by studies looking at why CCS failed and what could make it work in the future – is the concept that the transport and disposal of CO2 should be seen as a public good, and therefore part of public infrastructure.
This means governments shouldn’t try to flow all the costs and all the risks of that part of the supply chain on the industry.
Why transport and disposal?
Because high concentrations of CO2 tend to be around industrial clusters. A big power station like Drax having its own CCS is not necessarily relevant to a majority of applications.
But if you created that local infrastructure – say on Teesside or in Norway – and treated it as public infrastructure, then it becomes economically viable for a single company or industrial plant to produce a business case to capture and insert its CO2 into that infrastructure.
So that would quite significantly change the economic conditions. And if the carbon price went up to 20 or 25 euros, then it might start making economic sense for individual companies to capture their CO2. Whereas if you load the infrastructure cost on an individual company, there is no way to make an economic case – it becomes a huge burden. And with competitive industries like chemicals and steel, that burden may be the straw that breaks that particular industry’s back, which governments obviously don’t want.
So that’s the model that came out of our analysis. Of course, if we could somehow get an effective agreement on a global carbon market and a steady increase in carbon price to levels of 40, 30 or 50 euros per tonne, then of course that would be a very effective driver.
But at the present, international agreement on such issues appears pretty unlikely. And the European Union is understandably concerned about creating too much of a competitive disadvantage in the current international climate.