China has set the goal of being carbon neutral by 2060. What might the transition look like and what has to happen in the 2020s to get started?
Over the last few months I have posted a number of articles on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), highlighting the need for this set of practices and technologies in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The discussion on CDR has also been growing in the academic community, as illustrated by a recent article in Nature Climate on equity considerations relating to the allocation of carbon dioxide removal quotas. Like many before it the article recognizes the necessity for CDR, but focuses on how to distribute the burden of implementing it at scale.
In calculating the required distribution of CDR quotas, the authors use a mid-range CDR cumulative allocation quota of 687 GtCO2 over the period 2018-2100 (as used in the IPCC SR1.5 P3 scenario) to 176 of the 197 UNFCCC parties following Responsibility, Capability and Equality principles. Under the Responsibility (or proportionality) principle, which relates historical emissions from a given country with responsibility to provide solutions to global warming, CDR efforts would increase with greater accumulated historical emissions. By contrast, the Capability (or ability-to-pay) principle establishes that countries better able to solve a common problem should contribute more, which implies wealthier countries are assigned a greater share of CDR efforts. Finally, according to the Equality (or environmental justice) principle, every individual should have the same right to be protected from pollution. Hence, equal per capita CDR is here enforced across countries irrespective of current (or past) emission levels and economic capability.
This is all well and good and the analysis is useful, but it falls foul of one major issue; the UNFCCC has almost no successful track record of distributing burden or enforcing compliance. The closest point that was reached in terms of targets and compliance were the requirements for developed countries within the Kyoto Protocol; unfortunately that didn’t end well. So while it is helpful to understand how the burden ought to fall, there is little chance of devising an international system of allocation to implement burden sharing. Rather, the world has settled on the architecture of the Paris Agreement which sees countries taking action according to their own nationally determined contributions (NDC) to the overall goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C. Nevertheless, within that structure there is some hope.
The Nature paper also makes the point that the capacity to implement CDR is not evenly distributed around the world. Geological storage of carbon dioxide is easier in some locations than others and the opportunity to pair bioenergy production with CCS for negative emissions may only reside in certain places. It is also clear that natural carbon storage through reforestation will only be possible at large scale in certain countries due to land availability and climate considerations. Small industrial states like Singapore are a great example of this. The country has set a course towards net-zero emissions in the second half of the century, yet its borders encompass significant hard to abate emissions and there is little or even no local capacity for CDR. What should they do?
So we have a problem of uneven supply and unclear distribution of demand, within the framework of the Paris Agreement. The solution to this problem is not one of allocation, but one of trade, making use of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. It does of course depend on countries wanting the Paris Agreement to reach its goals, which requires that there is some sort of progressive implementation of a net-zero emissions goal within respective NDCs. The EU, UK, New Zealand and a handful of others have already set goals of 2050 for net-zero emissons. As noted above, Singapore is also on a pathway to net-zero, with current policy considerations placing that after 2050. By contrast, Bhutan is already carbon negative and Costa Rica plans to cross net-zero in the near term.
In a posting last year I showed how Article 6 and various forms of CDR could be used to reach net-zero emissions globally. The use of a trading option allows those with a clear goal of net-zero emissions to invest across borders to unlock removal potential that would otherwise remain dormant. There is no allocation or distribution of quotas, only the self-imposed requirement to reach net-zero emissions through a nationally determined contribution. We could imagine a gradation of such NDCs stretching from now (e.g. Bhutan) to 2100 (e.g. a heavily industrial emerging economy), but with all countries either investing in or delivering CDR capacity, driven by the market and its distributive capacity towards lowest cost outcomes.
The picture I developed to illustrate Article 6 starts like this, with no CDR in place;
. . . and ends up like this, with significant CDR capacity realised through cross border trade and investment.
While this is a simple illustration, it isn’t a world that depends on quotas and allocation, but it is a world that has a desire and willingness to get to net-zero emissions.
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;
- 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.
- 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.
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);
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.
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.