This piece was first published on the CCUS Projects Network.
Over the past months, the question of how to reduce emissions in industry has received increasing attention. The European Commission’s long-term vision of A Clean Planet for All is adamant that, to achieve net-zero emissions by mid century, all sectors have to decarbonise. Industry, the third-largest emitting sector in Europe, has shown little progress in reducing emissions over the past years. In fact, industry emissions from Europe’s largest economy, Germany, increased by over 8% between 2014 and 2018.
Despite concerns over costs and competitiveness, studies have repeatedly shown that achieving net zero by 2050 is technically and commercially possible, proving that there is no “unavoidable CO2” in the 21st century. The latest in these sector specific studies is the report Industrial Transformation 2050 by Material Economics, launched in Brussels in April 2019.
Carbon capture is one of the key levers of decarbonisation
The study joins the ranks of scenario analyses that seek to establish the scale at which various measures and technologies can contribute to reducing emissions, based on a potential future baseline case. The perceived scenarios revolve around three important levers of decarbonisation:
- New production processes that fundamentally alter the way goods are produced.
- Circularity that reduces waste streams and improves the means to reuse and recycle products.
- Carbon capture technologies that prevent climatically harmful gases from reaching the atmosphere.
The study is clear that all three approaches are needed to achieve Europe’s goal of a carbon-neutral economy. This is, of course, in line with other studies and also the Commission’s long-term strategy that stresses that all available tools have to be deployed.
What we can do today?
So, as time for action is running out, what do scenarios tell us about the choices we have and what we can do today? Many of the options in the scenarios face obstacles while others don’t even exist yet. Beyond behavioural changes, technologies need to be improved and required infrastructures provided; physical and practical limitations have to be acknowledged.
Naturally, innovation, research and development are crucial. Many new processes have yet to be invented, their implementation at scale may remain decades away. Product design regulations for easier recycling need to be developed and transposed. Technical limitations of mechanical recycling have to be overcome, which include challenges of degrading materials.
Also, improving collection rates and tracing to ensure plastics do not end up in the environment is no small feat. Full circularity is a challenge that will grow in difficulty as separation, collection and recycle rates are required to reach near-universal levels.
Carbon capture and storage can be implemented today, at scale
Beyond investing in potential future breakthroughs, it is crucial to ensure we implement today the available technologies that we already know will be needed tomorrow. This applies both for an accelerated expansion of renewables and the provision of new infrastructures for CO2 and hydrogen.
Indeed, the IPCC, the European Commission and studies like the recent one from Material Economics all emphasise that to reach zero emissions in time we need to implement a technology that can prevent CO2 reaching the atmosphere from the point of emission. Of the possibilities that exist, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one of the few that can be implemented today and at scale.
Capturing CO2 and storing it deep underground, or using it in products that keep the CO2 away from the atmosphere, are currently the only solutions to achieve net-zero emissions from primary industries that emit CO2 as part of their processes (such as cement), or that lack access to alternative production routes using low-emissions materials (such as steel and chemicals).
Deep changes in policy are needed
Unfortunately, current policies are insufficient to incentivise industry to decarbonise deeply and invest in the deployment of necessary technologies. European companies will need to make crucial investment decisions in the coming years that, with an investment cycle of up to thirty years, need to be in line with a net-zero future in 2050. Yet, the EU’s Emission Trading System, with its free allowances and failure to provide long-term pricing security, is not up to the task.
Reducing emissions will always come with a price tag. Deep changes are needed before 2050 and any further delay will only complicate the transition, and increase overall costs of action.
CO2 infrastructure creates options and benefits the economy
CCS has several advantages over other decarbonisation options. Firstly, it is available today and proven to work. There have been CCS projects for decades, showing that the technology is effective in transforming significant amounts of CO2 from a climatically harmful molecule in the atmosphere to a safe, slowly re-mineralising material in the geosphere deep underground — from where most of it came anyway.
Secondly, once CO2 infrastructure has been established, it benefits from economies of scale. This reduces the cost for transport and storage as more emitters decide to capture their emissions. Indeed, as CO2 capture can be retrofitted to many existing industrial plants, it protects existing assets and further limits costs.
Thirdly, an open CO2 network brings flexibility over deep decarbonisation options that boost the development of other potentially crucial measures. These include clean hydrogen (which can be used to decarbonise heat, power and transport), negative emissions (in combination with sustainable biomass or direct air capture), and a more circular, sustainable use of CO2, where climate benefits are assured.
Establishing CO2 infrastructure therefore provides options for emitters to choose whether to capture their CO2 for storage or utilisation, switch to hydrogen, or invest in completely new innovations. Having access to such infrastructure can directly improve the attractiveness of Europe as a base for industry.
Implementing CCS as a net-zero climate technology in the near future becomes a conversation changer — moving from potential pathway scenarios, to real action and a driver for innovation. A CO2 infrastructure is a “no regrets” investment that offers optionality and a real solution to reducing Europe’s emissions today and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
CCUS Projects Network revitalises activity at a crucial time
The Commission’s initialisation of the CCUS Projects Network to revitalise knowledge sharing across CO2 capture, transport, use and storage initiatives comes at a time when picking up the pace of implementing climate solutions is more crucial than ever. While a diverse set of studies have assured that we know of our options, acting on that knowledge and delivering them has yet to take place.
Through the CCUS Projects Network, we seek to provide a platform of discussion and action for capture, transport, utilisation and storage projects that can significantly advance Europe’s ability to achieve net-zero emissions. The projects we deliver in the next years will lay down the pathway to a low-emission industrial economy.