When countries gather on Sunday to hammer out how they will enact pledges to cut carbon emissions, a Norwegian-led oil consortium will offer a solution: pump some of your excess carbon dioxide to us and we could store it for you.
Environmentalists worry the costly technology, known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), will perpetuate the fossil fuel status quo when rapid and deep cuts energy use are needed to limit global warming.
But proponents of CCS will be lobbying hard at the two-week climate conference in Katowice, Poland, for the extensive investment and regulatory change required to employ it at scale, citing UN assessments that it could play a role.
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“The expectation is that Katowice will be important,” said Stephen Bull, a senior vice president at Norwegian state-controlled oil company Equinor (EQNR.OL), which is involved in developing a CCS project called Northern Lights.
“CCS is the only way to go,” he said, arguing that countries need the technology to help fulfill the pledges they made around the time of the breakthrough Paris climate change agreement in 2015.
A United Nations report warned on Tuesday that nations would have to triple their current efforts to keep global temperature rises within boundaries scientists say are needed to avoid devastating floods, storms and drought.
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Along with the United States, Norway is one of the countries at the forefront of drive for CCS, building on 20 years of diverting carbon dioxide from its vast gas output and using some to push out hard-to-reach oil from aging fields.
Oslo plans what it says will be the first viable project to use CCS to limit industrial emissions by taking carbon dioxide from industrial plants at home and abroad and storing it permanently in empty oil reservoirs under the seabed.
The relatively small scale of the project, along with the unsolved problem of who will pay for it, highlight the obstacles to getting CCS technology off the ground.
Organizers of the estimated 1.6 billion euros (US$1.8 billion) Northern Lights project say it could store around 5 million tonnes per year of emissions from a Norwegian waste-to energy plant, a cement plant as well as emissions from other countries.
This is a tiny fraction of the 6 billion tonnes per year that would need to be stored by 2050 according to the International Energy Agency, which coordinates industrialized nations’ energy policies.
The project still needs the Norwegian government to take a final investment decision, something which Trude Sundset, CEO of Gasnova, the Norwegian state’s CCS enterprise, said was scheduled for 2020 or 2021.
That would depend on how the project developed, she said, adding it was also necessary to bring industry and other countries on board.
“It is not easy to find a good business model in the short, medium term,” she said.
“It’s naive to think one country can pay; it has to be a collaboration between industry and government.”
A European Union climate strategy published on Wednesday said rapid deployment of renewables meant the potential of CCS to be a major decarbonization option appeared lower than before. But it said CCS would be needed, especially if the bloc wanted to reach a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“For sure, we have to improve carbon capture and storage and we have to invest,” EU climate chief Miguel Arias Canete told Reuters.
Earlier attempts to fund CCS in Europe have largely failed. An EU program in 2012 did not go on to fund a single CCS project and a British support scheme was canceled in 2015.
Britain’s government now plans to help develop the country’s first commercial project which will capture carbon dioxide to be used in industrial applications by the mid-2020s.
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Europe’s Green party prioritizes energy efficiency, recycling, tree-planting and renewable energy, but says there could be a role for CCS in offsetting emissions from processes like steelmaking.
“We need to experiment with it. There is an industrial application — think steel,” Bas Eickhout, Dutch Green MEP and climate spokesman for the Greens, told Reuters.
“The problem is that the longer we wait, the more it (CCS) becomes a necessary evil.”
Eighteen large-scale CCS plants are in operation around the world, according to the Global CCS Institute, which says 2,500 CCS facilities, each able to store 1.5 million tonnes a year, would be needed by 2040 to keep global warming within a 2C rise.
Countries as far afield as Algeria and Japan are working with CCS but only two of the world’s CCS operations are on power plants. The CCS industry sees potential for many more.
While Europe focuses on renewables and replacing emissions-heavy coal with gas, developing countries say they cannot move so fast and U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled his country out of the UN’s Paris climate change accord, promotes coal.
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But the U.S. Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) think tank said this month that coal plants are having a difficult time competing with wind and solar resources which have come down rapidly in price even without CCS.
“Economics is a serious issue. And to do CCS on a wide scale you need to build a whole new infrastructure: new pipelines, find repositories which would work, inspection equipment and then monitoring,” said IEEFA’S David Schlissel.
IEEFA estimates putting CCS on an average U.S. coal plant would cost nearly $100/megawatt hour (MWh). This compares to average power purchase agreement prices for wind and solar of around $20-$40/MWh or less since 2017.