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Carbon capture key to reaching net-zero, but climate chief urges caution

Pipelines and storage tanks at Northern Lights CO2 terminal in Øygarden, Norway, The plan is to ship it offshore for permanent storage in depleted gas fields.
Pipelines and storage tanks at Northern Lights CO2 terminal in Øygarden, Norway, The plan is to ship it offshore for permanent storage in depleted gas fields. Copyright Svein Ove Soreide/ Northern Lights
Copyright Svein Ove Soreide/ Northern Lights
By Robert Hodgson
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A warning from the climate commission Wopke Hoekstra that carbon capture is no magical cure for global heating comes as new policies show the EU is banking on a huge and rapid deployment of the 'unproven' technology to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

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Climate action commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has warned that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not a panacea for halting global temperature rise, but critics have voiced concerns about the extent to which EU leaders counting on a technological fix “unproven” at anything like the scale outlined in a new action plan.

“There is no alternative to driving down emissions, and you cannot magically…CCS yourself out of the problem,” Hoekstra told reporters on Tuesday (6 February) as he and other EU officials pre-sented a new climate policy package in Strasbourg. “Having said that…we cannot afford to leave CCS out of the equation, particularly for the hardest to abate sectors.”

Alongside a recommendation to reduce net greenhouse gas to a mere tenth of 1990 levels by 2040, the EU executive presented an Industrial Carbon Management Strategy which sets out a vision for a multi-billion-euro market-based system to capture and transport huge volumes of CO2 around Europe for use by industry or permanent storage.

The sectors Hoekstra referred to include industries such as cement and fertiliser production where huge quantities of CO2 are released independently of the energy required for their manufacture, but also potentially waste incineration or the production of low-carbon synthetic fuels for aviation and shipping.

But climate campaigners are concerned that the EU executive is being too optimistic about the real world potential for such technology, with questions being raised about the viability of permanent storage at the scale envisaged, and also the uses to which it might be put if successfully deployed.

The European Commission’s strategy calls for an increase in the volume of CO2 pumped into per-manent storage from next to nothing today to 280 million tonnes annually by 2040, rising further to 450 MT a decade later, by which date the EU is committed to reducing its emissions to net-zero.

Petroleum-rich Norway, not an EU member, is currently the European frontrunner in CCS technolo-gy, with the state covering four-fifths of phase-one costs of the Northern Light offshore storage project – part of the Oslo government’s €1.5bn Longship project launched in 2020, which also in-cludes demonstration capture projects at a cement plant and waste incinerator.

“This is a good day for the climate and for CCS,” said Børre Jacobsen, managing director of the con-sortium behind the project, which comprises national energy firm Equinor, France’s TotalEnergies, and Shell. “The 280 million tonnes target corresponds well with our market insight into the hard-to-abate emissions most relevant for CO2 capture and storage,” he told Euronews in an email ex-change.

“Having signed the very first cross-border agreements to store CO2 from two EU member states, Netherlands and Denmark, we are now unlocking a commercial market for CCS services in Europe,” Jacobsen added.

Northern Lights, which intends to use a depleted gas field off the west coast of Norway as its per-manent storage site, is targeting an initial capacity of 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which the director said would be open by the end of the year “on schedule and on cost”. The plan for phase two is to increase that figure to 5 million in the coming years.

Clearly aware that such numbers are out of whack with the scale of the EU’s new found ambition, European lawmakers agreed on the day of Hoektra’s announcement to a commission proposal to oblige oil and gas firms to set up at their own cost 50 million tonnes a year by 2030 at their own cost – and unlike most existing CCS projects worldwide, it cannot be linked to so-called advanced hydro-carbon extraction, where CO2 is used to force the last reserves of oil out of near-depleted fields.

The requirement is part of a Net Zero Industry Act (NZIA), the EU’s answer to a multi-billion-dollar US subsidy scheme for domestic green technologies, for which government delegates and MEPs agreed a provisional legislative text almost exactly as the Commission was presenting its vision for a market-based technological climate fix.

But Liana Gouta, director general of industry lobby group FuelsEurope was concerned that the EU was not ready to pump in enough public money to realise its broader plans. “CCUS [carbon capture, use and storage] projects are costly and existing funding mechanisms, such as the EU ETS Innova-tion Fund, are far from being sufficient to incentivise the large-scale deployment [and] ensure [their] profitability,” she said.

“A strong Industrial Carbon Management Strategy should also keep effectively incentivising the full value chain,” Gouta said in a statement.

François-Régis Mouton, managing director of the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers Europe, suggested that natural gas – which can be used to produce so-called blue hydrogen when the resultant CO2 emissions are sequestered – had a place in a net-zero Europe. “The role of gas to reach climate neutrality seems underestimated, perhaps due to a lack of confidence in Europe’s ability to scale up CCS,” he said.

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But the WWF’s European policy office echoed concerns widely held among green groups by stating that carbon capture technology “must not be used as an excuse for continued fossil fuel use” and regretting that the NZIA deal did not set any such restrictions. “With this final deal, the European Parliament and Council have lost their green focus and are instead relying on hocus-pocus,” policy officer Camille Maury said.

Critics also see the lack to date of any successful large-scale deployment of the type the Commis-sion is proposing in its strategy as a reason to be cautious about staking the success or failure of the bloc’s climate mitigation policy on it.

Arjun Flora, director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a think tank, said of the new EU plan that “its key assumptions are not being sufficiently challenged”, and that the executive had failed to consider how to pivot its climate policy if the CCS strategy fails to deliver. “Instead, all long-term liabilities are expected to pass to taxpayers,” Flora said. “This pattern is similar to exaggerated claims around the need for hydrogen and LNG infrastructure in recent years.”

“Rather than making long-term bets on unproven technologies and debatable carbon accounting, it would be prudent to limit support to specific key projects—to first demonstrate real-world performance by 2030 or 2035—before committing to any further targets and public funds in this direction,” Flora said.

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