Labelling synthetic fossil fuels, produced with captured industrial CO2, as “renewable” in the new EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) would be detrimental for the uptake of zero-emission electric transport and could threaten the achievement of the EU climate targets.
The idea behind Carbon Capture and Usage/Utilisation (CCU) for synthetic fossil fuel production, also known as ‘power to gas,’ is that, instead of dumping CO2 directly into the atmosphere, the CO2 is captured and sold to other industrial actors as feedstock for other products such as synthetic fossil fuels.
Even if at a delayed stage, this captured CO2 will eventually be emitted into the atmosphere. Thus, referring to it as a sustainable or any climate solution at all would be misleading. Despite this, there has been a strong push by industry stakeholders to have such CCU technologies included in the new EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED).
At a European Commission conference on the valorisation of industrial CO2 emissions on 26 October 2016, representatives of various Directorate-Generals indicated that the proposal for the new RED for the post-2020 period will be presented in November 2016. The technologies considered to be renewable as per the directive will enable their users, under certain circumstances, to receive subsidies for their efforts. Until now, CCU has not been included in the directive.
Usage of synthetic fuels in transport is wasteful, costly and energy-inefficient
It is true that some methods of manufacturing products with captured industrial CO2, such as mineralisation, prevent the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. However, other products, such as synthetic fuels and chemicals, merely delay the emission thereof.
Large amounts of renewable energy are needed to produce hydrogen, which is added to captured industrial CO2 in order to make synthetic fuels for the transport sector. The clean hydrogen is thus fossilised and wasted.
Generating synthetic methanol requires ~7.5 times more energy input for every kilometre driven when compared to 100% electro-mobility, and perpetuities air pollutant and CO2 emissions. This entails a massively inefficient value chain draining renewable electricity which could be used for zero-emissions hydrogen-based transport, or even better, for electro-mobility directly.
The usage of synthetic fuels in transport therefore impedes the development of truly clean electricity- and hydrogen-based transport system by locking society into massive emissions in transport that cannot be easily dealt with.
Meeting the EU’s target of reducing CO2 emissions from transport by 60% and completely eliminating the use of fossil fuels in cars by 2050 will necessitate significant and immediate efforts to transition to a low- and zero-emission transport sector. Electro-mobility offers the most promising route to achieving this and we are seeing a growing number of European countries already moving away from the combustion engine for transport.
Paradigm shift for the transport sector is already underway
One example of this is last month’s vote of the German Bundesrat (the federal council of all 16 German states) to ban all gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2030. The Bundesrat’s resolution also called on the European Commission to “evaluate the recent tax and contribution practices of Member States on their effectiveness in promoting zero-emission mobility”.
Being Europe’s largest car producer Germany thus sends a strong signal of the auto industry’s commitment to embracing electro-mobility as the inevitable way forward for the transport sector. This Bundesrat resolution is, however, now at risk of being directly contradicted and undermined by industrial efforts to create a massively subsidised synthetic fossil fuels industry.
Allowing the EU climate and renewable energy policy tools to be used to put in place a subsidised CCU industry along that line will undermine the case for any emission reductions in the sector into which that CO2 is brought. In the transport sector, for instance, subsidised CCU-derived fossilised hydrogen fuels (methanol or other) will not replace fossil fuels. Rather, this will delay or replace the shift that this sector truly needs: a shift toward zero emissions through, for instance, electro-mobility, hydrogen or ammonia fuels.
Industries and policy makers ought to work together to accelerate the large-scale deployment of electric vehicles and ensure the direct use of clean hydrogen in transport. The EU should actively support its strategic industries in the low-carbon transition, but this must be done through real integration of industrial and climate policies. This avenue would allow us to reach the objectives of the Paris Agreement and simultaneously boost industrial employment and welfare.
Bellona’s article “Synthetic Fossil Fuels – backdoor subsidies, climate on the backburner” explains in detail the dangers for climate action as a whole of promoting synthetic fuels to the status of “renewable”.