Articles about carbon capture and storage
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?
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;
There are two categories of CDR and within each of them a subset of approaches. These are;
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;
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.
As the EU works to reset its emission reduction goals to align more closely with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement, a question arises around the scale and scope of the energy transition required. What will it look like? How fast should it proceed? Which technologies need to be accelerated to achieve the desired outcome? To help answer these and provide a perspective on the transition, my colleagues in the Shell Scenario team have produced a scenario sketch of the journey forward, arriving in 2050 with a net-zero emissions energy system (NB: The pathway was formulated in late 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore does not include the energy system disruption being seen in 2020).
From a policy perspective, the EU has been addressing the climate issue for at least 15 years, with the EU Emissions Trading System in place since 2005. The 2020 energy situation arises from the 2007 climate and energy package, which included three key targets:
The targets were set by EU leaders in 2007 and enacted in legislation in 2009. They are also headline targets of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Within this, the EU Emissions Trading System is the EU’s key tool for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from large-scale facilities in the power and industry sectors, as well as the aviation sector. The ETS covers around 45% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, the target is for the emissions from these sectors to be 21% lower than in 2005.
The year 2020 represents a halfway point from 1990 to 2050, during which 20% of the hard deployment work has been done, but with a number of key technologies available at scale that hardly existed or didn’t exist around the turn of the century. Solar PV and Electric Vehicles are two examples (although solar PV did exist in 2000, it was expensive and small scale). That leaves just 30 years for the remaining 80% reduction, which must also include bringing to scale several other technologies which are yet to be deployed in the EU. This is a tall order and the scenario sketch illustrates how extraordinarily stretching it will be.
The additional key technologies that must move quickly to scaled deployment are as follows;
On the assumption that development and demonstration of all the above proceeds rapidly, deployment kicks in for most during the 2030s. But in the 2020s the energy technologies that have been nurtured over the last twenty years must be accelerated. For example, by 2030 solar must be quadruple current deployment, wind nearly triple current deployment and nuclear must be growing again, not declining.
In the 2030s the really hard work starts, with carbon capture and storage moving from first demonstration in the EU by 2025 to 40 medium sized facilities (one million tonnes CO2 stored per annum) by 2030 and over 100 by 2035. New technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell trucks must become ubiquitous during the 2030s, with at least 600,000 vehicles on the road by the end of that decade.
All of the above will require both technology development incentives and deployment policies. The analysis assumes a rising carbon pricing mechanism – whether explicit or implicit – to more than €200 per tonne of CO2 equivalent by 2050 to deliver and sustain the emission cuts and CO2 management necessary for the EU to reach climate neutrality. But even the EU ETS will need to change, as I discussed in a recent post.
While carbon pricing is an efficient lever for reallocating resources and driving behavioural change, it will not be enough on its own. A sectoral approach to policy which brings clean technologies, fuels and products to market, as well as their deployment and diffusion at scale, must urgently be developed. It is essential that policy should help provide consumers and businesses with low-carbon alternatives to adopt.
In the sketch, 2050 marks a point of climate neutrality for Europe, helped by the development of large scale carbon sinks through reforestation. But this isn’t the end of the transition, merely a point of significance. The hydrogen economy will continue to grow, electrification of industry will expand and efficiency gains will continue to be made. As was illustrated in the Sky Scenario, Europe will likely shift to become a net-negative emission economy during the second half of the century, a necessary requirement to ensure global net zero emissions and a 1.5°C limit on warming.
Download the EU Sketch here.
Last week the project proposal for a third runway at Heathrow in London was put on hold after a successful court challenge based on climate concerns. The courts sided with the plaintiffs who argued that the proposal did not adequately demonstrate how its overall emissions impact would be managed given that the UK has now adopted a target of net-zero emissions in 2050. While the emissions from the project itself are modest, with cement probably being the largest component, the ongoing emissions from aviation expansion as a result of the project could be considerable on a cumulative basis over many years.
At this point I should note that the third runway at Heathrow has been a contentious project since it was first proposed and there are many reasons put forward as to why it should or should not be built. My focus here is on the expected expansion of aviation in and out of the United Kingdom and the resultant emissions. Aviation has grown rapidly over the half century since the introduction of the widebody Boeing 747 (by which point it had grown considerably since the first intercontinental jet services some twenty years prior), to the extent that there are now over four billion passenger flights per year globally.
Of course airlines, airports and aviation companies are responding to a strong demand signal from consumers (the UK is an island). In order to drive change consumers also need to understand their own externalities and be prepared to manage them, most likely by a cost passed through with the ticket purchase.
A 2017 UK Department of Transport assessment of aviation showed growth for both capacity constrained and unconstrained scenarios, with the low constrained case showing a 60% rise through to 2050 and the high unconstrained case showing a doubling of demand.
Heathrow consumes about 20-25 million litres of Jet-A1 every day, so a third runway would increase this by 50%, or some 10-12 million litres per day.
A double check based on aircraft efficiency and expected distance of travel gives a similar number. If we assume that the runway operates for 18 hours per day with a flight interval of 90 seconds, with 50% of the time being used for take-off, that implies 360 additional departing flights every day. If we then assume that every flight is dedicated to longer haul, say New York or Dubai, then that means about 37,000 litres of fuel per flight based on the improved efficiency for modern aircraft of about 2.2 litres per 100 km per passenger, 300 passengers and some 5,500 km of travel, or a total of just over 13 million litres per day.
The consumption of 13 million litres of Jet A-1, 365 days a year, will result in the release of about 12 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide when combusted. So the question that needs to be asked is how the mitigation of 12 million tonnes per year will be organised such that it has reached net-zero by 2050.
The answer lies with the sector itself, not just the airlines that own the planes or the companies that make them or the airport that is building the runway or the fuel providers that sell Jet A-1. All these parties will have to collectively own the problem and set about solving it. There are already the beginnings of some answers, but efforts will need to be accelerated such that the question posed through the court in relation to the net-zero goal of the UK can be confidently answered. For example;
All the above are still in their early stages of development and deployment, with bioJet looking to be the most promising immediate option. Nevertheless, over the coming thirty years it should be possible to bring UK aviation emissions to net-zero through some combination of the above.
But who should be responsible for implementing the strategy? Within the aviation industry, a framework already exists under which all this could be managed.
The airlines have already agreed and are now beginning to implement the CORSIA framework under the auspices of ICAO. This sets out a journey through to 2035 which will see global aviation emissions limited to current levels. It includes a facility to balance emissions through a trading arrangement where they cannot be directly mitigated through fuel changes, although the final rules of this have yet to be agreed and will involve Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. In almost any aviation scenario there will be unmitigated aviation emissions in 2050. CORSIA will need to evolve further after this first phase to be aligned with the emerging net-zero goals in many countries with major aviation hubs. The trading arrangement will eventually need to focus on removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in combination with geological storage.
This form of emissions challenge to projects and development may well become more frequent, not just from campaigners but also from regulators, as the governments they represent grapple with the task of getting to net-zero emissions. There will likely be a real shift in focus from the projects themselves and their subsequent operation (i.e. Scope 1 plus Scope 2 emissions), to the broader impact they have on societal emissions (i.e. Scope 3 emissions). That will place more onus on project developers to think through and then manage the broader implications of their actions.
Perhaps the biggest policy development of 2020 (possibly lasting through to 2023 or so as all the legislative requirements are agreed and put in place) will be the EU laying the foundations for its declared goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Although the goal of net-zero was always there as an intention, the date of 2050 brings it close enough to require policy makers to give thought and then substance to the mechanisms that will deliver it. One such mechanism is the EU Emissions Trading system, which has now been operating for 15 years (but effectively 20 years from a design perspective) and covers the large emitters across the EU as well as encompassing intra-EU aviation.
The EU ETS functions by progressively reducing the number of allowances available to emitters on a linear trajectory, which means that under current plans the number of allowances issued each year will fall by about 48 million units, with 2020 allocation limited to around 1.8 billion allowances. Subsequent phases of the EU ETS, potentially including the current Phase IV, will need to see an increase in the annual reduction of allowances such that the system reaches zero in 2050. Based on a continuation of the EU ETS under the current trajectory it won’t reach zero until the late 2050s. A revision in the system could operate from the start of Phase IV, i.e. in January 2021, which means that the current 2030 goal would change. If the revision comes in from the start of Phase V, then that implies an even steeper decline for the period 2031 to 2050.
While the mechanics of the cap-and-trade architecture is very simple, the reality of 2050 is not. Under a revised EU ETS, from January 1st 2050 (or perhaps 2051) there will be no further allocation of allowances, either by auction or freely given. Yet this may not be a time in which there are no emissions – thirty years is possibly insufficient time for the complete turnover of everything in the large emitters system. Some industrial facilities, much of the aviation sector and even some power stations in parts of Europe may still be using fossil fuels as their energy source or will be emitting carbon dioxide from a conversion process (e.g. cement manufacture). Any remaining banked allowances and allowances in the Market Stability Reserve (MSR) will be quickly consumed against these ongoing remaining emissions.
The potential for remaining EU emissions can be seen in the Shell Sky Scenario, released in 2018. Even though the scenario represents a period of very rapid energy system and industrial transition, the time from now to 2050 isn’t sufficient to bring heavy industry, aviation and power generation to zero. Even in 2070 significant aviation emissions remain and require balancing with the net negative situation reached in the power sector through the deployment of bioenergy with CCS.
So how will the EU ETS work once it runs out of allowances?
The key to the future operation of the EU ETS lies within the objective it is trying to deliver, net-zero emissions. Net-zero means that there is a balance between remaining emissions and the removal of the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide form the atmosphere, i.e. a sink. This stems from Article 4 of the Paris Agreement;
However, the EU ETS is currently an allowance issuance and surrender system, which points to a change in its structure at some point in the period leading up to 2050. This would require the introduction of a unit into the EU ETS that represented a ton of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and permanently sequestered. From 2050, the EU ETS would then become a system without allowances that managed the balance between remaining emissions and sinks, at least until emissions actually reached zero. Policy makers would need to define the parameters of the unit such that it could be relied upon to provide sufficient volume for the required balance. Two considerations would be key;
These units wouldn’t be issued directly by the EU governments in the way allowances are today, but would be made available for sale to emitters from projects that sequestered carbon dioxide. Governments would of course be involved in issuance of units to the sequestration projects against verified permanent storage of carbon dioxide.
A further consideration would be when such a unit is introduced into the EU ETS and how sufficient removal capacity is developed prior to 2050 to ensure there is enough available when net-zero emissions is required. This will be a judgment call arrived at through transition scenario analysis. However, the point in time when the unit will first be needed is not 2050, but when the allowance decline pathway first crosses the actual decline in emissions pathway. The illustration below shows how this might happen as reductions become more challenging over time.
To date, the actual reduction in emissions has typically been faster than the decline in allowance availability, hence the allowance surplus that developed in the 2010s and the creation of the MSR which has acted as an allowance removal mechanism (but it can also return allowances). These lines could potentially cross at some point in the 2030s, so the point of introduction could be at the start of Phase V of the ETS, i.e. 2031.
The EU Commission has developed a similar chart for their own communications, although this is for the transport sector as a whole, much of which is not currently covered by the EU ETS. However, expanding coverage is another option on the table. If such an expansion introduces more activities that may have remaining emissions in 2050, then the need for a sink unit becomes more important.
A provision such as described above might be seen by some as a backstop in EU ETS, but nevertheless an essential one for continuing smooth operation of the system. Without it, the EU ETS could become unstable in the years approaching 2050 as immediate mitigation opportunities for remaining emissions become unavailable and there are insufficient allowances available to cover these emissions.
At this time of the year I usually review the progress in implementing carbon pricing around the world, but it seems timely to look more closely at where carbon pricing policy might be headed. That timeliness is driven by the bushfires in my home country of Australia, where the media have resurfaced the 2008 Garnaut Report. The Garnaut Climate Change Review looked in depth at the climate issue and also recommended ways in which the Australian Government might take on the task of emissions mitigation. The recent resurfacing of the report has come about due its very specific comments on bushfires, which have always been an important issue in Australia. Notably, the report says;
So here we are in 2020 and the effect is indeed very observable. But of equal importance are the recommendations on mitigation that Garnaut put forward. He proposed that Australia implement an emissions trading system, similar to that operating in the EU, with a view to inserting a carbon price into the Australian economy and allowing it to efficiently drive down emissions. After more than a decade of political wrangling, there is no carbon price in Australia and energy system emissions remain today at about the level they were when Garnaut penned his report.
Unfortunately the Australian story is not unique. As the reality of a changing climate has become increasingly apparent and despite widespread agreement among economists that a carbon pricing system of some form is the most economically efficient way of driving down emissions, the global uptake of this policy instrument remains limited.
The World Bank compiles a detailed list of carbon pricing systems and it shows that over 50 systems exist around the world, notionally covering over 20% of global emissions. But a deeper look reveals that most of these are very light taxes, typically under US$10 per ton of carbon dioxide. Many of the other systems are still in various stages of implementation, but there are a handful of systems that stand out;
Nearly a quarter of a century into carbon trading and pricing, taking the 1997 Kyoto Protocol as a starting point, progress is muted at best and certainly not commensurate with the task at hand. In the Shell Sky Scenario, carbon pricing is a critical component for success, with implementation becoming global over the 2020s and a price range of $25-$60 developing by 2030.
But the harsh reality is that there is little sign of this happening, despite the need and despite the economic efficiency of the approach. Implementation can be challenging for policy makers; in some countries even small forced price changes in goods and services, sometimes linked to carbon price implementation, have led to street protests and worse. While some governments have tried to impose carbon pricing, the outcome often ranges from tepid implementation at a very modest price level to eventual retraction (e.g. Ontario). Others just seem to be philosophically allergic to the idea. So where does that leave us?
Explicit carbon pricing through taxation and trading systems may well have seen its best days, which perhaps means a turn towards more implicit mechanisms through standards and mandates. These may well be more expensive for society to implement but are often price opaque or even price invisible. Renewable energy mandates have had considerable success, so we may well see this type of policy imposed more broadly in areas such as transport (favoring Electric Vehicles) and home heating (requiring certain technologies in new builds and renovations). Within the industrial sector, a standard that prevents emissions would force the use of carbon capture and storage, with an implied carbon price of perhaps $50-$100 per ton.
The financial markets are beginning to impose a carbon price of sorts, with finance and investment for coal technologies becoming harder to find and some equity market commentators attempting to dissuade investment in certain companies with links to fossil fuels. In the week of the UN Climate Summit last September, an alliance of several large pension funds and insurers responsible for directing more than US$ 2.4 trillion in investments and under the name Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, committed to carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050.
Some governments are looking at border tariffs based on the carbon content of imported goods, which offers another more opaque means of imposing a carbon price.
Despite the above, carbon pricing won’t go away and as emissions eventually fall (which they will) a price could well emerge as a direct cost for carbon dioxide removal. The aspiration or even requirement to be a net-zero emitter will mean the funding of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal to balance remaining emissions. This could occur through natural solutions such as reforestation, or through technical means such as direct air capture and geological storage, but probably both. Sequestered carbon could become a commodity of sorts, trading widely and imposing a form of carbon price throughout society.
At the start of this new decade, carbon pricing may well be at a crossroads. Direct implementation through taxation and emissions trading systems is looking harder, even though it remains the preferred solution from an economic efficiency perspective. While the pressure to develop carbon pricing systems should not be eased, we may nevertheless see direct carbon pricing approaches take a back seat to more opaque mechanisms. But the eventual goal of net-zero emissions implies a price to deliver on the ‘net’. That is emerging today through trade in nature-based offsets, but largely in the voluntary markets. Eventually, a regulatory approach should emerge and then carbon sink pricing will be here to stay.
I spent a week at COP25 in Madrid, with great hope that the negotiators would land the Article 6 text and complete the so-called Paris ‘rule book’. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be the case and the longest COP to date was closed with little to show for the immense amount of effort that was put into it, from the Chilean Presidency, the Spanish hosts and the thousands of attendees. But the COP didn’t end with nothing, in that we do have near completed text for Article 6, albeit entirely bracketed, reflecting the lack of final agreement. Brackets are normally used to surround individual words or short passages of text that remain contentious, but in this case they surrounded the Article 6 guidance in its entirety.
In a world where there is increasing pressure (and need) to get to an effective state of zero emissions, the ability to use the market to deliver such outcomes by “trading” emission reductions and sinks between countries and sectors, becomes critical. I illustrated this in a recent post which stepped through the transition illustrated below.
The final Madrid text reflects a great deal of effort by the Parties, albeit many of the same issues resurfaced during the discussions and highlighted the differing perspectives, and understanding, of Parties on the role and application of Article 6. This will require all Parties to work hard to bridge differences to see an agreement in 2020.
The entirely bracketed Article 6.2 text looks very good in that it covers the key requirements for a transfer. The definition of the internationally transferred mitigation outcome (ITMO) is sound and importantly includes removals, a clear requirement over the longer term and a necessity for net-zero emissions (see above illustration). The guidance on corresponding adjustments adopts a carbon budget approach to the methodology, which provides the highest standard for environmental integrity of the transfer. The text also provides for Article 6.4 emissions reduction units (6.4ERs) to be transferred via this process.
The 6.2 guidance asks participating Parties to cancel some ITMOs to ensure overall mitigation in global emissions, but importantly this is not a requirement for use of the process. In some instances it may be practical for participating Parties to agree on such a step, but in others it is unlikely to happen. For example, the net flow of allowances between two linked emission trading systems (e.g. Switzerland and the EU) will be an ITMO relative to the respective Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) within which the trading systems sit, but deciding which allowances to remove from the system when hundreds or even thousands of private entities might be involved is both impractical and self-defeating for the link, in that if there is a penalty for trading with a cross-border entity against a domestic entity, then domestic trades will prevail and the synergy of the link will be lost.
Despite the big brackets and the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA) only noting the guidance on Article 6, it is very likely that the 6.2 text will be used by Parties as it currently stands. Switzerland and the EU may well be the first Parties to do so as they link their respective trading systems from 1.1.2020. Use of the current 6.2 text may also help legitimize it in the case of the CMA never actually agreeing it.
While the 6.2 guidance was largely (but not completely) without contentious points within the bracketed text, this was not the case for 6.4, where many of the issues going into the COP remained unresolved as it finally closed on Sunday, resulting in the big brackets around everything – remember, in UN parlance, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Unlike 6.2 transfers where Parties can simply start using the text on a bilateral basis, this cannot be the case for 6.4 because it is a centrally administered mechanism with a supervisory body, which cannot exist until all Parties agree to the text. So while there is text that looks to be complete, we are still some distance away from it being agreed and the mechanism beginning to function. This means that some countries looking for foreign direct investment through the mechanism as a means of achieving mitigation will have to wait. It may also mean that they pursue other energy infrastructure projects which could lead to lock-in of a higher emitting system. Nobody wins through such a delay.
Some of the points that remain to be agreed in 6.4 are also issues that shouldn’t really be open for debate; not in a world looking for a successful implementation of the Paris Agreement.
There was still no agreement on a share of proceeds from the use of Article 6.4 or on how an overall mitigation in global emissions is determined, key issues for some Parties that reflects the importance of demonstrating the potential of trade to deliver emissions reductions. A simple analysis of the use of Article 6 shows that it alone delivers mitigation that wouldn’t otherwise occur, as I illustrated in the recent post referenced above. Unfortunately, some negotiators didn’t see this point and the call for surrender of units continued, with a minimum haircut of 2% appearing in the bracketed text. Penalties such as this will do nothing to promote the use of the mechanism, but only deter investment.
So there we have it, a fortnight of negotiation that very nearly resulted in a good Article 6 ‘rule-book’. But it didn’t and that is unfortunate for all concerned, but particularly for the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement. Let’s hope that Parties can quickly reconvene around the final Madrid text and bring it to a conclusion, perhaps even before COP26 in Glasgow, in that the formulation of mid-century development strategies and more ambitious NDCs for that COP is in part dependent on the availability of Article 6 transfers.
One of the key talking points of the recent Climate Summit in New York was the carbon budget available for a transition that could limit surface temperature warming to 1.5°C. In her speech to the UN, Greta Thunberg made note of the numbers;
“To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons . . . . . . . . . . With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.”
The physics and chemistry of the atmosphere tell us that the currently observed surface temperature warming can only be brought to a halt when society stops adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from long sequestered sources (fossil fuels, limestone for cement, global forests). Further, we also know that there are only two pathways forward for doing this – one is to stop the current practice of deforestation and using oil, coal, gas and limestone and the other is to at least remove an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for as long as these practices continue.
With this in mind, society has set out on a journey of energy transition, which involves reducing its use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible and reversing forest loss. The goals of the journey are based on our understanding of how much more warming will take place for a given amount of cumulative ongoing emissions; the data was published in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C released just over a year ago. It is also clear that the so-called ‘carbon budget’ for 1.5°C of warming (about 0.4°C above current levels) is very small and vanishing rapidly as emissions continue.
For a 2°C goal at 50%, the notional carbon budget of 1500 Gt CO2 looks achievable. While it represents only 35 years of emissions at current levels, on a 0.54 Gt per year linear declining emissions basis to net-zero it could extend to the 2090s, but that means emissions need to start falling from 2020. If there would be a ten year period of flat emissions prior to a fall, then the rate shifts to about 0.75 Gt per year. A fall of 0.54 Gt in the coming year would be about 1.4%, below the rises of the last two years.
Most published strategies that address the carbon budget problem make use of a set of technologies that are well understood and available at scale today, namely various applications of carbon dioxide capture and geological storage. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be used today to prevent emissions of carbon dioxide in the first instance when fossil fuels are used, but also offers the potential for removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But progress in actual scaling and deployment of CCS is essentially moribund, while other energy related technologies are moving ahead. In a world of growing climate anxiety, why is this?
In some cases, there is the belief that CCS is experimental and untested, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. For starters, the technologies involved have been used in the oil and gas industry for decades, just not in the precise configuration that CCS requires. For example, separating carbon dioxide from other gases is a common practice in the natural gas sector where the gas coming from the well typically contains a low concentration of carbon dioxide, but it must be removed before the product is sent through pipelines and sold to customers. Furthermore, nineteen large scale CCS facilities are in operation around the world, including a Shell operated facility in Canada capturing and storing one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. CCS technology may well improve, but it certainly isn’t experimental or untested, nor does it require pilot plant testing or demonstration – that phase is well and truly over. New CCS technologies will undoubtedly emerge and they will be subject to demonstration, but that is true for any technology pathway.
For others there is a belief that alternative technologies will emerge, be deployed very rapidly and effectively do away with the need for CCS. This is based on a view that the world can quickly move on from using fossil fuels, but is very unlikely to be the case. While there are clearly a set of technologies now available to generate electricity without fossil fuels, we are still very distant from a society based entirely on electricity using solar PV, wind turbines and nuclear reactors. Electricity makes up just 20% of the energy we use to provide services and historically that has shifted at a rate of two percentage points per decade. But even doubling or quadrupling the rate of change would still mean a century or more of transition and likely exceeding the desired carbon budget along the way. Further to this, there are many applications for combustion based energy provision where an electricity pathway doesn’t exist (e.g. cement manufacture, aviation). Some ideas are out there, but moving from concept to full scale commercial deployment is a multi-decade programme in itself.
We shouldn’t underestimate the time it takes to move from one system to another or build whole new systems. Even the internet has taken 25 years to deploy at scale, but that was on the back of an existing telephony system and was based on technologies that were first tested 25 years prior, in the late 1960s. In the field of energy transition, even longer time-frames are likely. The first Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carrier commenced operation 60 years ago, with the current market now reaching around 350 million tons per year; that’s about 17 EJ, or less than 5% of global energy demand. In the Shell Sky scenario we imagine a global hydrogen industry in 2100 that is four times this size and yet still only provides about 10% of final energy. Building a significant hydrogen and electricity based energy system (or any other system) to replace the current fossil fuel system is quite possible, but the time-span to do so will be measured in decades.
Finally, there are those who just claim that CCS costs too much, but usually without a reference to compare it with. Mitigating carbon dioxide won’t come at no cost, so the costs we do incur are all relative. Depending on the application, CCS projects can cover a range from as little as $30 per ton of carbon dioxide (e.g. in ethanol plants in the USA) to over $100 per ton in power stations. But as infrastructure develops costs will come down, as has been the case for many other technologies. Building a new electricity system based on renewable energy or deploying electric vehicles (EV) will also come at a cost, in some cases in excess of the cost of utilizing CCS, but the option to use CCS instead may not be available due to policy choices. This happens in instances where governments have given preference to certain energy technologies, rather than looking more broadly at the full range of opportunities for managing emissions. A challenge often faced by CCS is that its cost in CO2 terms is very transparent, against other technologies where costs on a CO2 basis are often not published or even used.
So we are left with the dilemma of a vanishing carbon budget and the eventual deployment of an alternative fossil fuel free energy system that will likely mean breaching that budget. Technologies and approaches that seek to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or prevent emissions in the first instance can bridge this gap. This includes the full range of application of CCS technologies, but also the use of nature based solutions such as large scale afforestation. In the Shell Sky scenario the use of CCS in industry ramps up rapidly from the 2030s as this is an immediately available technology. It peaks in the 2070s and then starts to decline, as new technologies begin to deploy at scale, for example hydrogen based smelting of iron ore. This forty year gap is successfully bridged with CCS. We could imagine that by the middle of the 22nd century there is no further need for CCS in industry as a complete transition away from fossil fuels has taken place. But for 50 to 100 years, CCS has offered the possibility of no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, even as fossil fuel use continues in legacy industrial processes.
Almost all scenario thinking that relates to the goal of net-zero emissions during the second half of this century has to consider the role of negative emission technologies. These are mechanisms and approaches which result in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its sequestration in the biosphere (e.g. trees) or lithosphere (i.e. geological storage). This is necessary because we are very unlikely to see out the century with a complete end to fossil fuel use, industrial processes and land change practices all of which lead to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Further, the application of carbon capture and storage on facilities such as cement plants and steel mills won’t deal with remaining emissions from mobile sources such as aviation and shipping so removal elsewhere must be done to balance these remaining sources. In addition, many scenarios utilise negative emission technologies as a way to correct the overshoot of goals from earlier in the century, effectively mopping up carbon dioxide released earlier.
There are a number of ways in which carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere, with the simplest being an expansion of the biosphere through reforestation. But as was illustrated in the Shell Sky scenario, even very large scale reforestation isn’t sufficient to balance ongoing fossil fuel use. Global reforestation of some 700-800 million hectares of land (an area the size of Brazil) shifted the outcome in 2100 from 1.75°C (midpoint of a range reflecting uncertainty) to 1.5°C, which required a sink of some 10 Gt carbon dioxide per annum (current fossil fuel use results in some 32 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions – Source: IEA).
In addition to reforestation, the Sky scenario utilises CCS for industrial facilities and incorporates bioenergy production with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to act as a negative emission technology (see illustration below), giving a total geological based sink of about 10 Gt per annum. BECCS hardly exists in practice today but a 1 million tonne per annum facility is operating in the USA. The technology is well understood and effectively a commercial proposition given the right CO2 pricing system.
Apart from reforestation and BECCS, another technology exists to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, known as direct air capture (DAC). This technology captures the carbon dioxide from the very low concentration in the atmosphere and then makes it available for use or geological storage (DACCS). A small demonstration plant is running in Iceland as part of a much larger geothermal power complex and I was fortunate to be able to visit it a few weeks ago.
Sitting within the ON Power Geothermal facility sits a single Climeworks air capture unit. It takes in air with a carbon dioxide concentration of some 410 ppm (ambient atmospheric conditions) and vents air with a concentration at about 100 ppm. An amine system acts as the sorbent and 4-6 times per day the unit recharges itself by using geothermal energy to heat the amine sorbent and release the carbon dioxide under controlled conditions.
That carbon dioxide then joins a larger carbon dioxide stream (from the geothermal plant) and is injected into the subsurface where it reacts with various minerals to form carbonates, effectively fixing itself into the geology.
This single unit captures and stores approximately 50 tons per annum of carbon dioxide, which is about enough to balance the emissions of eight Icelanders, but only three American citizens. This is very much a pilot unit for demonstration and proof of concept purposes, with plans by Climeworks for scaling the technology.
In the Sky Scenario we chose to use BECCS rather than DACCS as our negative emission technology because BECCS is visible and scalable today. This is because all the related processes and practices like biomass collection and use, geological storage and carbon dioxide transport are all scalable or have been scaled. As such, a scaled systems approach for BECCS could be envisaged in the decades ahead. In the case of DACCS, the scope is potentially huge, but the development pathway for this technology probably has some way to go. This is illustrated by the debate underway in academic circles about the cost of DACCS. DAC is challenged simply by the vast quantity of air that must be processed to extract every ton of carbon dioxide. Today, BECCS can be visualised as a cost effective technology whereas that is not yet the case for DACCS.
Ultimately DAC may also have another use, that being the manufacture of synthetic fuels and materials. Even if society eventually stops extracting fossil fuels, it’s very unlikely that we will stop using hydrocarbons, they are just too useful. But manufacturing them from scratch needs a source of carbon and a source of hydrogen, both of which could come eventually come from renewable energy powered processes. For carbon, it would be DAC and for hydrogen it would be electrolysis of water. Combined and with enough energy, you can make pretty much anything. But scaling this technology is a daunting prospect, which I wrote about a few years ago with reference to the manufacture of synthetics Jet A1 for aviation. All of these technologies will also require years or perhaps decades of development to see significant cost improvements emerge.
It was fascinating to see this technology in action, albeit at a very small scale. Whatever finally emerges, it probably won’t look anything like the plant in Iceland, but we shouldn’t underestimate the ability to innovate in the face of real need and commercial opportunity. It will likely take a long time, but later in the century it may well be the case that planes are flying on air in more than one sense.
Further reading: For a very comprehensive look at greenhouse gas removal technologies, a recent report from the Royal Society is worth a look.
Note: Scenarios are not intended to be predictions of likely future events or outcomes and investors should not rely on them when making an investment decision with regard to Royal Dutch Shell plc securities. Please read the full cautionary note in http://www.shell.com/skyscenario.