Shining a light on carbon dioxide removal

An important research paper emerged recently from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), raising the profile of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. CDR covers a set of technologies and practices that result in carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere being captured and stored, effectively removing it from the system where it is leading to surface temperature warming. This might be done for one of two reasons;

  • To balance emissions from an ongoing source of carbon dioxide, so there is no net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and therefore no warming associated with that source. This is basis for the term net-zero emissions.
  • To reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in an attempt to lower surface temperature warming. This might be necessary if warming has exceeded a particular goal, such as 1.5°C, and there is a need to bring the temperature back down again.

There are two categories of CDR and within each of them a subset of approaches. These are;

  1. Natural solutions, which come from increasing the total carbon held within the natural biosphere. Examples include;
    • Reforestation and afforestation.
    • Various farming practices to increase soil carbon.
    • Wetland restoration and expansion.
    • Sustainable harvesting of timber plantations to build structures such as houses, where the carbon is locked away for decades or longer.
  2. Technical solutions linked with geological storage of carbon dioxide. Examples include;
    • Direct air capture of carbon dioxide paired with geological storage (DACCS). This happens today on a very small scale in Iceland [Link], but is likely some years away from a first large scale demonstration.
    • Pairing traditional carbon capture and geological sequestration (CCS) with an energy facility using biomass as the feedstock (BECCS). This is indirect air capture in that the carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere when the biomass is grown. This is a scalable technology today and a major facility exists in the USA. Bioethanol production is widespread in the USA, with the fermentation step producing significant amounts of pure carbon dioxide. At such a facility in Illinois around one million tonnes per year of this carbon dioxide is captured and geologically stored, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. An example discussed in the EU Commission’s Hydrogen Strategy released recently notes the possibility of negative emissions from clean hydrogen production (bio-gas +CCS).

Carbon capture and storage is a version of (2) above, but the capture is directly associated with the generation of carbon dioxide, such that it is never emitted. As such, there is no removal from the atmosphere, but the geological storage step remains the same.

The paper gives a good summary of the approaches for CDR  (both natural and technology based) and picks apart the various reasons for an almost complete lack of action so far. It also makes the case for why CDR is important and notes the lack of progress so far. Two key findings are given below;

If the EU truly wants to meet its own climate policy goals, it will not be able to avoid pursuing the unconventional mitigation approach of CO2 removal from the atmosphere – in addition to far-reaching conventional emission reduction measures.

Although the European Parliament is one of the more progressive players in EU climate policy, it has so far made little progress on the issue of CDR. During the negotiations on the Regulation on the Governance System for the Energy Union, which was concluded in 2018, it was the EP which succeeded in getting the Council to explicitly mention the long-term option of a European net negative emissions pathway. However, this did not result in any noticeable action on the part of the EP with regard to CDR. In its own-initiative reports, CO2 removal has not been given priority to date. Nor has a firm CDR approach played any role in recent legislative procedures – for example, in the amendments to the Emissions Trading Directive, the Effort Sharing Regulation, and the revision of the LULUCF Regulation during the last legislative period. Currently, there is no solid evidence of how the EP in its current composition will position itself on CDR. The first indication will be the EP’s negotiation position on the EU Climate Law.

Nevertheless, the EU Commission has recognised the role of CDR in its strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy in 2050. They include within the report the image shown below.

Screenshot 2020-07-13 at 15.55.46

Some weeks ago, Shell released a Scenario Sketch which illustrates how the EU might achieve its goal of net-zero emissions in 2050. The Sketch made maximum use of available and expected technologies, including CCS on various industrial facilities, but a gap still remained with emissions of some 700 million tonnes per annum. This gap was filled with CDR, both nature based and artificial. In 2020 (pre-COVID 19), the EU energy system emission flows can be represented as shown below (all numbers in million of tonnes CO2 per year);

EU NZE 2020

For the most part, energy needs are met with fossil fuels, with some portion of that (~160 Mt per year) ending up in finished products such as plastics. Net emissions of carbon dioxide exceed 3 billion tonnes per annum. The use of bioenergy in the EU is also shown, but is effectively emission neutral. A much smaller portion of the energy system is non-emitting, from sources such as wind, solar and nuclear.

By 2050, the picture looks very different. The non-emitting sector has grown substantially and net emissions are zero. However, actual emissions from the continued use of fossil fuels is 670 million tonnes per year and the total potential emissions from fossil fuel use is 1.13 billion tonnes per year.

EU NZE 2050

Several factors are contributing to the overall net-zero outcome;

  • Some fossil fuel is use for making products such as plastics, as is the case today.
  • A bioplastics industry has emerged, with 50 million tonnes per year of atmospheric carbon dioxide ending up in finished products.
  • There is large scale use (240 million tonnes per year) of CCS in industry, such as in smelters and petrochemical plants.
  • There is 620 million tonnes per year of CDR, in two categories;
    • 350 million tonnes of BECCS.
    • 270 million tonnes of nature based solutions.

While the use of CDR may well decline in the ensuing decades after 2050 and might have vanished completely by the 22nd century as further substitution for fossil fuels permits, the 2050 situation is one of very large scale deployment of technologies and practices that are either non-existent in the EU today or hardly visible. The level of deployment is such that a major commercial solution needs to emerge, driving the business sector to invest in CDR.

That solution could come from within the EU ETS as I discussed in a recent post, or a new mechanism could emerge that forces deployment of CDR through mandate or encourages it through a feed-in tariff. Both have been used successfully to get the renewable energy industry going.  Whatever the approach for activating a commercial response, it needs to start soon. Building an industry on the scale shown will take many years and time is in very short supply.

The SWP paper comes to the same conclusion, i.e. start now, but it is already proposing upper deployment limits for individual sectors and overall use of CDR so as to maximise direct mitigation and the shift away from fossil fuels. This is hardly the way to unleash a commercial engine. Those who invest in CDR need to be assured that there isn’t some artificial limit put in place that may in turn limit the return on their investment, particularly if they are early adopters who take on additional commercial risk. In any case, CDR isn’t an inexpensive option that is easy to do – even large scale reforestation in the EU will be a challenge in terms of land use, maintenance, protection and longevity. The case for investing in CDR may well be a hard won battle in the boardroom, with many companies preferring to find direct mitigation options anyway.

The time for turning our minds towards CDR is now, as the EU rolls out its Green Deal and sets the rules for engagement that may well prevail to 2050 and beyond. Although the subject of CDR has been broached and by 2023 the EU Commission wants to put forward a carbon removal certification framework, CDR needs to be a priority within the immediate policy framework that emerges from the European Parliament.