Carbon Removal Enters Mainstream Climate Debate

17 March 2020 - // Features
Sonja van Renssen
Freelance climate, energy, environment journalist and moderator

Much as in the energy transition debate, the big question is who pays for carbon removal?

So much carbon has been emitted that to restrict global warming to 2°C requires its removal from the atmosphere, agree energy and climate scenarios. This is an inconvenient fact largely ignored by policymakers, but as focus sharpens on how to achieve carbon neutrality, experts are starting to take carbon removal technologies seriously.

Climate change is the number one policy priority of the new European Commission, the EU’s administrative body, that came into office at the end of 2019. The European Green Deal, unveiled on December 11, is more than just a climate policy. It will define the executive’s five-year mandate, including policies for jobs, growth and the EU’s ability to compete against other world blocs. At the heart of the Green Deal is the goal for Europe’s energy consumption to be carbon neutral and achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. All EU member states except Poland have signed up to the net-zero goal and the Commission has promised to cement it in law. A legislative proposal, which will not need Poland’s approval to pass, is due in March 2020.

With progress on the vision, attention is turning to how to get there. Current policies will only reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050. The Green Deal sets out plans to review those policies, from CO2 standards for cars to the EU Emission Trading System (ETS). But if the EU is to achieve net zero emissions, it will also have to tackle residual emissions, such as non-CO2 emissions from agriculture (cows) and sectors where low carbon solutions are still lacking, including some emissions from long-distance transport (especially aviation) and certain heavy industries.

Even if all signatories to the Paris Agreement implemented their national climate plans as promised, global emissions would be over 50 gigatonnes a year in 2030, or twice what they should be to keep the rise in global temperature at no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This gloomy fact was reported to a conference in Brussels in December 2019 by Sabine Fuss, a lead author of the 1.5°C report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Europe is set to lead the debate on carbon removal with its ambition to become the world’s first climate neutral continent. The concept is embedded in the climate models of the European Commission and the IPCC. The question is no longer whether carbon removal will be needed but how much and what could deliver it. Two options have dominated modeling to date: massive tree planting programs and biomass-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). These reflect two types of solution: natural and engineered.

There are other possibilities. Analysis by the Commission lists further forestry and land measures: direct air capture and storage (DACCS); biochar (partly burnt biomass that added to soil can increase its carbon storage ability and fertility); enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinization (crushed minerals added to soil or oceans increase CO2 absorption and for soil, fertility); and ocean fertilization (extra iron or other nutrients trigger algal blooms, which partly end up in ocean sediments).

Work by Fuss and colleagues suggests that most options could remove CO2 from the atmosphere at less than €200 a tonne in the long run, but the Commission is focused on forestry, BECCS and DACCS, citing concerns about the effectiveness and scalability of CO2 absorption and the storage potential of other technologies. For comparison, the carbon price, the price at which EU ETS allowances currently trade, is around €25 a tonne of CO2.

Storage versus use

For all options, three important issues must be considered: removal potential, permanence and cost. Forestry and land-based measures could store huge volumes of carbon at relatively low cost, but with the risk of (large) leaks, as the forest fires in Australia and the Amazon demonstrate. Tree planting is also land and water-intensive. BECCS faces the same resource challenge, with the CCS problem on top. CCS has yet to be proved commercially viable and publicly acceptable. DACCS requires little land, but is expensive and even more energy intensive than BECCS. Scientists estimated in a paper published in July 2019 that by the end of the century, the large-scale deployment of DACCS could eat up more than half of overall global energy demand today or a quarter of expected demand in 2100 given the significant amount of energy needed to run direct air capture machines.

Important, too, is that the different removal options often compete for the same resources, notably land and biomass. Nor do they only compete with one another. One of the great challenges for a country like Finland, which leads Europe’s climate neutrality charge with a target date of 2035, is finding an optimal balance between sequestering carbon (storing it) and developing a bioeconomy (using it). In some cases, storage and use can neatly overlap, but not always.

An international coalition of scientists published an overview of the top ten ways of using CO2 in the science journal Nature in November 2019. These include CO2 use in chemicals, fuels and building materials, as well as BECCS, enhanced weathering (speeding natural circles of CO2 absorption), forestry techniques and biochar. The authors assessed over 11,000 peer-reviewed papers. They conclude that in the long-term, each of their ten options could bind at least half a gigatonne of CO2 a year. But they also note that while CO2 can stay in building materials for decades, it may be stored for just a few weeks in fuels like methanol. The currently much-hyped low-carbon liquid fuels are at best a carbon neutral, not a carbon negative solution.


Residuals versus removals

The Commission’s Green Deal makes no direct reference to negative emissions or carbon removal. But it does mention agriculture, forestry, CCS, building materials and circular, climate-neutral products. At the December 4 conference, Artur Runge-Metzger, a director in the Commission’s climate action directorate, confirmed the executive has started examining CO2 removal technologies and the regulatory framework they would require. “These are complex questions,” he said. “We need a better understanding of what we actually need to do. Over the coming years we will push forward a lot of work to make sure we have certified CO2 removals… in time to help us achieve our 2050 goal, without deviating from the need to reduce emissions as much as we can.”

His last point is why CO2 removal has remained taboo for so long: climate policymakers and campaigners alike feared they would be used as an excuse to ease up on the deployment of carbon-free energy technologies.

With the carbon removal conversation starting in earnest, new political fights loom. Different countries will have different levels of residual emissions depending on their economies. Ireland has a large agricultural sector, with a resulting large share of unavoidable emissions. Which country — or sector — would be ready to go net negative for Ireland to keep its farms? It could be a country like Sweden, which is contemplating net negative emissions after 2045, or a company like RWE, which has committed to carbon neutrality by 2040. The power sector is decarbonizing faster than other sectors.

Much as in the energy transition debate, the big question is who pays. Carbon removal could be rewarded through the EU ETS, for example for BECCS, with an EU ETS cap going down into negative numbers. On the other hand, DACCS would be difficult to attach to a specific sector. It might make sense to attribute carbon removed to specific countries, in which case the volumes removed could be accounted for under legislation for the non-ETS sector. In parallel, land and forestry measures would intersect with existing rules on land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF). Clearly, how to regulate carbon removal requires some thought.

CCS present versus past

The future of CCS, or more specifically Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS), and with it BECCS, in Europe, now depends largely on the success of two flagship projects, Porthos at the Port of Rotterdam and Northern Lights in Norway. The Porthos project is preparing to transport CO2 from industries at the port to empty gas fields under the North Sea. On December 2, 2019, the project announced that four companies, Shell, ExxonMobil, Air Liquide and Air Products, had signed on as potential users of the CO2 transport and storage infrastructure it intends to build.

In Norway, the plan is to capture CO2 from a waste-to-energy plant in Oslo owned by the city and Finnish energy company Fortum, and a Heidelberg Cement factory, and transport and store it under the North Sea. The Northern Lights consortium is made up of Shell, Equinor and Total. In this case, because half the material going into the waste-to-energy plant is biowaste, it could be a first example of BECCS.

In the Green Deal, the Commission highlights CCUS as a key breakthrough technology. The next two years will be crucial for the Dutch and Norwegian initiatives as they wait to hear by 2021 whether they get the European and national subsidies they need to proceed. The difference with past CCS efforts, which stagnated, despite billions in public investment, is that these projects are focused on the transport and storage as well as capture of CO2 right from the start, and could help build a new hydrogen economy as well as deliver on national climate goals. (“Blue” or decarbonized hydrogen can be made from natural gas with CCS.)

Models versus reality

The work of Fuss and others suggests the world needs to start scaling up CO2 removal technologies in 2030 to reach five gigatonnes of removals a year by 2050. The big challenge is demand. The scientists who produced the overview of the top ten uses for CO2 believe these could accelerate the development of removal technologies, even if they sometimes only store carbon temporarily, such as in liquid fuels. The need for life cycle analysis is emphasized, however. The scientists advocate carbon pricing, not subsidies, as a means to drive CO2 use where it makes sense for climate change.

So far, the development of technologies such as BECCS and DACCS lags behind the deployment of them envisaged in climate models. The EU has started the CO2 removal discussion in agriculture, said Runge-Metzger, which may offer the more cost-efficient solutions. In the Green Deal, the Commission announces a new “farm to fork” strategy for spring 2020 to encourage efforts by farmers to tackle climate change. There will also be a new EU forest strategy with an eye on using forests to absorb more CO2.

A good example of the power of land and plant-based solutions is the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) program pioneered by Tony Rinaudo in Niger and now spreading around the world via the NGO World Vision. Rinaudo won an alternative Nobel Prize, the Right Livelihood Award, for his work in 2018. FMNR is about restoring trees from stumps, roots and seeds already in the soil. The result is improved soil fertility, livelihoods and carbon storage. It has already led to 240 million new trees and shows how climate action can go hand in hand with sustainable development.

Domestic versus offsets

Back in Brussels, next steps for the EU are to define what counts as removal and storage. It also needs a price for negative emissions. The EU could lead the world in creating a market for carbon removal. Start-up, incubated at Finnish state energy company Fortum, is showing the way. Since April 2019, Puro-earth verifies and trades carbon removal certificates. It issues them for carbon stored in one of three ways: carbonated building elements (basically concrete without the cement), wood (for building) and biochar (used in city landscaping).

The rationale is that while every organization can reduce its emissions and some may be able to go carbon neutral, very few can go net negative on their own. “You need someone else’s help,” co-founder Marianne Tikkanen told the December 4 conference. “You need certificates.” holds certificate auctions every two months. The average price at its last auction in December 2019 was €23 a tonne of carbon removed. Buyers to date include SEB, a Nordic financial services group, and Chooose, a Norwegian company that offers citizens an ongoing subscription for carbon removal. The difference with traditional emission reduction offsets, such as via the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which led to much controversy over whether the credits represented real emission reductions compared with business-as-usual, is that there is no baseline, only the absolute volume of carbon stored counts.

The model could be the start of a future potential business for energy companies: the polluter who pays becomes the cleaning lady who cashes in.

Sonja van Renssen
Freelance climate, energy, environment journalist and moderator

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