Most scenarios to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets require negative emissions technologies. However, carbon dioxide removal is not part of the EU’s climate policy yet. Its integration presents a serious challenge to the EU’s low-carbon policy paradigm and experience, write Oliver Geden of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Vivian Scott of the University of Edinburgh and James Palmer of the University of Bristol.
The majority of decarbonisation scenarios consistent with the Paris Agreement’s objectives of limiting global temperature increase to well below 2 °C and possibly even 1.5 °C envisage vast and sustained deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR).
To date, there is no practical implementation of these negative emissions technologies, and no Paris Agreement signatory government has committed to substantial research and development or the creation of regulatory mechanisms. While policymakers, informed by the IPCC, seem to have accepted that carbon dioxide removal is necessary to meet the Paris targets, they have avoided indicating who exactly is going to deliver it.
Currently, there is no high-level declaration or roadmap from the European Commission or the Council of the EU that mentions the need to generate negative emissions in Europe
Traditionally, the European Union and its Member States might be expected to take the lead. Recent modelling studies suggest that the EU power sector should deploy bio-energy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to reach gross CDR levels approaching 1 Gt CO2 per year by 2050.
To meet an overall emissions reduction target of 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990) the power sector would reach reduction levels of 152%, while transport, buildings and industry sectors deliver reductions of only 10%, 36% and 65%. Looking out to 2100, below 2° C scenarios from integrated assessment models (IAMs) with country-level data calculate that BECCS in the EU could contribute sustained net negative emissions to global mitigation efforts.
The EU appears rather unmoved by such scientific assessments of the need for its energy systems to deliver carbon dioxide removal. Currently, there is no high-level declaration or roadmap from the European Commission or the Council of the EU that mentions the need to generate negative emissions in Europe.
Consequently, carbon dioxide removal is not part of the EU’s climate policy regulation yet: even if a utility were to build a BECCS installation today, it could not receive extra credits under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). During the recent renegotiation of the EU ETS Directive, setting the rules for the 2021-2030 period, this has not even been a matter of serious debate. Other approaches to generate negative emissions, such as direct air capture and storage, large-scale afforestation, enhanced weathering or ocean liming have not been on the climate policy agenda yet.
This should not come as a surprise. Transformations of energy systems are usually based on political and economic considerations, not on optimum modelled mitigation pathways. To assess if and how carbon dioxide removal might enter into the sphere of EU energy and climate policymaking, not only should we consider how certain CDR techniques fit into existing sets of political preferences, economic interests, national energy mixes and infrastructures, but also how a carbon removal approach would fit into the dominant EU low-carbon policy paradigm and its shaping of the European energy system.
Challenges to climate policy paradigm
Carbon dioxide removal potentially confronts and confounds the stable narrative of the EU’s paradigm that emissions reductions ‘in line with science’ and support for low-carbon energy technologies will eventually help to achieve global climate stabilisation and deliver green growth.
It does not necessarily challenge the paradigm’s core – aiming to avoid dangerous climate change by eliminating emissions. Yet acknowledging the need to start its deployment in the 2020s in order to meet climate targets like the 2 °C threshold means admitting a partial failure and inadequacy of present policy.
EU governments and populations might ask why they should carry the burden of pioneering carbon dioxide removal to compensate for relative inaction elsewhere
This potentially disturbs the EU’s success story, as it challenges the still-held European view that mitigation by development and deployment of low-carbon energy technologies alone is on track to deliver global climate stabilization at the internationally agreed level.
Alternatively, given its track record of mitigation action, EU governments and populations might ask why they should carry the burden of pioneering carbon dioxide removal to compensate for relative inaction elsewhere. Especially as the method may bring little promise of climate policy co-benefits (e.g., green growth and jobs, better air quality, decreasing dependency on fossil fuel imports)?
Here, the overall interpretation of the CDR approach will be critical. Will carbon dioxide removal be seen as convenient to ‘vested interests’ borrowing from the future or as a rational imperative? Would European society view it as a betrayal of climate actions or an extension of the EU’s current approach? If it is presented as separate from mitigation and adaptation as a third dimension of EU climate policy then it will, as a form of geoengineering, create much more criticism than if defined as a subcategory of mitigation.
We must also ask about the perspectives of key actors and their responsibilities should the conceptual reference line, presently 80-95% emissions reductions by 2050 as a step to net-zero emissions, be shifted into net-negative territory, e.g. 130% by 2100. This would likely create tensions between Member States, and between emissions sectors, as it raises the prospect of considerably extending the distributed effort between pioneers and laggards.
Bioenergy initially enjoyed strong EU-level support towards deployment, with biomass by far the largest source of renewable energy in the EU
As an example, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report assumes the power sector, already the focal point of European mitigation efforts, would be a frontrunner to generate negative emissions. Extending the logic of distributed sectoral effort, the assumed capacity of the power sector to deliver negative emissions might also be assumed to continue to compensate residual emissions from other sectors deemed technically or politically too challenging to force to reductions of 100% or beyond (e.g. from transport or buildings).
However, advancing this agenda from generalised assumptions to practical implementation raises the question of how the EU power sector and EU governments might assess specific negative emission technologies.
The currently preferred negative emissions technology is bio-energy combined with carbon capture and storage. Bioenergy initially enjoyed strong EU-level support towards deployment, with biomass by far the largest source of renewable energy in the EU, mainly because of its dominant position in transport and heating sectors.
Contrasting the EU’s relative success (albeit with questionable benefits) in bioenergy development, efforts to initiate CCS deployment in the EU have structurally and comprehensively failed. As part of global ambitions coordinated through the G8, in 2007 the European Council set the objective to deliver “up to twelve” commercial scale demonstration projects by 2015.
The EU has little near-term prospect for CCS deployment
Subsequent EU mechanisms to create and award capital grants were developed , but a combination of factors – including the collapse of the EU ETS carbon price, power and industry sector reluctance, societal resistance, as well as failure by Member States to co-fund projects – led to widespread project termination.
As such, the EU has little near-term prospect for CCS deployment. Furthermore, central to the EU’s vision of power decarbonisation is the very high penetration of interconnected variable renewables, which leads away from a requirement for high load factor thermal plants that might be met with BECCS.
It is unclear how other technologies would be received politically. Direct air capture, for example, comprises the politically attractive promise of shifting surplus renewable power into time-insensitive usage, which would allow to frame it as another “Power-to-X” technology able to complement high-renewables power systems, outweighing strict cost considerations.
Carbon removal via afforestation, ecosystem restoration, or soil management appear to be the most plausible arena for near-term progress on removals, not least because of its “perceived naturalness” However, extending land-management beyond the objective of emissions neutrality to net carbon removal will be both complex to deliver, and necessarily limited in potential due to land space constraints.
Three possible routes
While the political perspectives for a dedicated EU BECCS or wider CDR policy seem bleak, there are processes that might open new opportunities. Out of countless possible options, we outline possible developments at three different levels – the EU itself, Member States, and the private sector.
A top-down approach by the European Commission appears politically challenging. Nonetheless, the Paris Agreement requires formal technocratic attention, perhaps through the integration of carbon dioxide removal into the new long-term climate strategy (to be delivered by early 2019), supplemented by plans for corresponding EU-level research funding from 2021.
Member States lagging behind might see negative emission technologies as opportunities to ease their mitigation burdens
However, allowing carbon dioxide removal to become an integral part of EU energy system modelling could follow a merely conceptual motive: to ease national or sectoral mitigation requirements in re-modelled trajectories, enabling the EU to avoid drastic measures in the near- to mid-term while still retaining nominal adherence to 2 °C or even 1.5 °C pathways.
On the Member State level, carbon dioxide removal is not yet an integral part of national energy and climate strategies. However, some Member States, notably Sweden, France, and the UK, are advancing domestic net-zero decarbonisation targets, an approach likely to be taken up by other climate-progressive governments, in the context of the Paris Agreement’s net zero target.
This perhaps invites an agenda of limited carbon dioxide removal development and implementation to offset residual emissions deemed too difficult or expensive to mitigate, which could subsequently influence actions at the EU level. Member States lagging behind might see negative emission technologies as opportunities to ease their mitigation burdens, all the more if their deployment could be co-financed through EU funds.
The integration of negative emission technologies into active rather than assumed policy will most likely prove a pragmatically tortuous, incremental and gradual process
Since biomass co-firing with coal is seen as a promising route to commercialisation of BECCS, Poland might be the Member State with the highest potential. But since Poland is the most prominent and outspoken laggard in European climate policy this could further undermine the political credibility of BECCS.
Lastly, we surmise that small markets could emerge based primarily around communities or companies wanting to go beyond ‘100% renewable’ claims and aiming for ‘carbon neutrality’ instead. This could conceivably support small-scale direct air capture, extend current emissions offsetting practices to small-scale terrestrial carbon dioxide removal, or perhaps generate investment in BECCS outside the EU.
These activities would be unlikely to achieve technically meaningful scale within Europe, but might usefully provide both early technology development and practical experience of societal and political acceptance of carbon dioxide removal.
While the above suggests possible routes for limited progress, the hard-won and solidified EU low-carbon policy paradigm should be expected to struggle to adapt to the near- to mid-term scientific imperative for structured carbon dioxide removal development. Short of exogenous events forcing a paradigm shift, the integration of negative emission technologies into active rather than assumed policy will most likely prove a pragmatically tortuous, incremental and gradual process.
This invites increased scrutiny of the practicality and pertinence of the timelines presented in modelled scenarios, in which research and development of negative emissions technologies is imminently commenced leading to successful delivery within little more than a decade from now. This timeframe would appear ambitious just for achieving the pre-requisite goal of adapting EU political perspectives towards carbon dioxide removal.
The EU should examine how negative emissions technologies might be deployed through integration into policy and accounting frameworks
If, despite the overwhelming evidence of its value to achieving low-stabilization climate targets, the EU and its most progressive Member States are reluctant to commence actions to deliver their share of global carbon dioxide removal in time, it is perhaps advisable to develop a more conservative assessment of the timelines and scales assumed worldwide.
The EU should seek to support the research, development and demonstration of negative emissions technologies, examine how they might be deployed through integration into policy and accounting frameworks, and seek cooperation in this effort with other leading forces in low-carbon energy transitions, e.g. California and Canada
However, in parallel, caution should be exercised in facilitating the continued conceptual usage of negative emissions technologies. To achieve this, first, European and national mitigation targets for the second half of the century should initially be limited to net-zero.
Second, greater scrutiny and justification should be applied to policy or model choices to designate specific sectors (e.g. transport, agriculture, industry) to have residual emissions that need to be offset via carbon dioxide removal (presently predominantly biomass with CCS in the power sector).
Third, limit ceilings below the theoretical model boundaries should be set on the inclusion of negative emissions technologies in models exploring deep decarbonisation scenarios. These could be either fixed limits to the present level over immediate decades, or made dependent on technology development or socio-political signals (e.g. only Member States with active development of commercial-scale operating CCS facilities and supporting CO2 transport and storage infrastructures should be able to select BECCS).
While the results of applying such limitations would not be comforting to EU policymakers or industry, they would better reflect real-world experience. In doing so, they would help minimise the risk of false policy optimism as to the ability for carbon dioxide removal to be rapidly achievable and scalable.
Oliver Geden is Head of the EU/Europe Research Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.
Vivian Scott is Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh.
James Palmer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.