How much carbon capture does the EU need to 2050? Robert Jeszke and Michał Lewarski at The National Centre for Emissions Management (KOBiZE), writing for the Florence School of Regulation, start by pointing out that mainstream estimates vary significantly, from 50-300 Mt CO2 to 1,300-1,500 Mt CO2. They then present their study (their estimate is 550 Mt CO2). The study highlights the importance of BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage): it can be economically viable while limiting carbon leakage beyond the EU borders. That also means stringent sustainability criteria must be enforced. The study’s scenario quantifies LULUCF (capture through land management), BECCS, Industrial CCS and DACCS (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage) through to 2050, resulting in net-zero for the EU. The authors emphasise that, however it is used, carbon capture should not replace efforts to reduce emissions in the first place; it is a complementary tool. And they note that most of the region’s success will come from the deployment of wind, solar, storage and demand-side management, the main drivers for reducing emissions.
The European Union (EU) stands at the threshold of a profound and unparalleled transformation as it forges ahead with ambitious climate and energy goals. To achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the EU must embark on an unprecedented scale of change in both the power system and the entire economy, encompassing a diverse range of technologies and solutions. As the landscape of technologies continues to evolve, predicting the scale, pace, costs, and potentials of these developments remains a formidable challenge, prompting the EU to adopt a strategy rooted in the integration of various approaches (a mix of technologies and solutions).
In pursuit of a sustainable energy system, the latest analysis by the CAKE/KOBiZE team identifies renewable energy sources (RES), particularly onshore and offshore wind, and photovoltaic, as the dominant technologies in all scenarios. These RES technologies will be further complemented by energy storage solutions, both battery-based and green hydrogen, as well as demand-side response mechanisms.
Recognising the importance of a diverse technology mix, nuclear and BECCS will also play a role.
..but carbon capture will play a key role
Absorbing CO2 emissions plays a key role in achieving the EU’s climate neutrality goal by 2050. Climate neutrality, a fundamental aspiration, means we do not emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we can remove or neutralise. CCUS technologies collaborating with fossil fuels, along with negative emission technologies, are projected to play a significant role in reducing the costs of achieving this goal to reach climate neutrality. The insights gained from the CAKE/KOBiZE team’s analyses underscore the critical importance of developing CCUS technology to drive cost-effective transformation. While the EU endeavours to reduce industrial and food production-related emissions in an economically justifiable manner, it also strives to avoid importing products with high emissions and exporting its own emissions abroad. In this context, the application of CCUS becomes an instrumental factor in achieving the desired outcomes.
Estimates of CCS’s potential vary significantly
The CCS potentials assumed by renowned institutions in the EU-27 vary significantly (50-300 Mt CO2 to about 1300-1500 Mt CO2) and have a massive impact on the obtained results regarding the costs of transformation until 2050.
The CCS potentials for the EU+ (EU-27 plus Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) assumed by the CAKE/KOBiZE team, amounting to approximately 550 Mt CO2, allows for the development of CCS technologies but does not base the transformation entirely on these technologies. This highlights the significance of CCS technologies in advancing the transformation process; however, it also emphasises the EU’s prudence in basing its strategy on a diversified portfolio of technologies.
Given the inherent limitations in achieving 100% efficiency in CO2 capture from exhaust streams of fossil fuels, it becomes evident that relying solely on capturing emissions from the dwindling stream is insufficient. The technology that currently seems to be economically justified to bring the emission balance to net-zero completely while limiting the phenomenon of carbon leakage beyond the EU borders is BECCS.
It is worth noting that negative emissions are designed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to offset the emissions that still exist in some sectors of the economy. In practice, negative emissions are achieved by technologies and activities that absorb or remove CO2 from the atmosphere, i.e. natural (LULUCF). The land use sector encompasses the management of cropland, grassland, wetlands, forests, settlements and includes land use change such as afforestation (planting trees), deforestation, or draining of peatlands.), or technological approaches (BECCS and DACCS require significant amounts of energy, which must be low-carbon to maximise the technology’s climate impact).
It is vital to recognise that negative emissions offset hard-to-avoid emissions in some sectors of the economy but should not replace efforts to reduce emissions in the first place. In essence, long-term measures to reduce emissions remain imperative, with negative emissions serving as a complementary tool in achieving complete climate neutrality.
Strong sustainability criteria
The CAKE/KOBiZE team’s simulations indicate that the deployment of BECCS technologies could enable the EU to reduce emissions by approx. 290 million tons of CO2eq. by 2050. It is worth emphasising that a fundamental assumption in this pursuit is that the biomass utilised for energy purposes adheres to strong sustainability criteria, with efforts to minimise emissions related to its transportation. To ensure a robust carbon accounting framework, the EU should restrict intra-EU imports of biomass and biomass imports from outside its borders.
In addition to these measures, it is crucial to acknowledge that not all captured emissions in biomass units are classified as negative. Roughly 20% of these emissions are attributed to their generation during the growth, transport, and processing of biomass. In the models, we assume the development of a wide range of zero-emission technologies, such as photovoltaics, offshore and onshore, or nuclear power, we enable CO2 capture in units fired with fossil fuels and, finally, in the mentioned biomass units. Unfortunately, the simulated scenarios fall short of achieving the net-zero goal projected on the basis of a comprehensive literature review of these technologies’ potential. The remaining emissions must therefore be reduced, for example, by deployment of DACCS technology (in Figure 1 marked as Backstop technology). To meet the net-zero target additional approx. 190 million tons of negative CO2eq emissions are needed.In the context of the energy system characterised by the extensive integration of intermittent RES, the role of energy storage systems providing elastic load becomes critical in bolstering system reliability. During periods of significant RES production surplus, the strategic implementation of electrolysers unlocks the potential for hydrogen production, serving as a long-term energy store and meeting the needs of various sectors within the economy. Theoretically, the transformation could take place without any of its elements, e.g. without the dynamic development of photovoltaics, windfarms, nuclear power, or CCUS but then the total cost of such a scenario would be incomparably higher rendering it an impractical proposition.
In the race towards achieving climate neutrality by 2050, the EU finds itself standing at a defining moment in history. As the global community rallies together to address climate change, the EU’s commitment to a more sustainable and resilient future remains steadfast. The transformative journey towards net-zero emissions necessitates an “all hands on deck” approach, wherein a diverse and comprehensive mix of technologies and solutions assumes centre stage. Among these instrumental components, CCUS technologies emerge as pivotal enablers, acting in concert with RES, energy storage, and complementary measures to curtail emissions and secure a sustainable future. By fostering collaboration between governments, industries, and society at large, we must strive to chart a course towards a cleaner, greener future.
This article was prepared within the scope of the project: “The impact assessment of the EU Emission Trading System with the long-term vision for a climate neutral economy by 2050 (LIFE19 GIC/PL/001205 – LIFE VIIEW 2050)”.
Robert Jeszke is CEO of Centre for Climate and Energy Analyses (CAKE) at The National Centre for Emissions Management (KOBiZE)
Michał Lewarski is a Senior Specialist at The National Centre for Emissions Management (KOBiZE)
The Florence School of Regulation (FSR) is a centre of excellence for independent research, training and policy dialogue, regarding the regulation of Energy & Climate, Transport, and Water & Waste.
This article is published with permission
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