Summer Series Ep. 3 | My Fears for CCS

For eight years I had been a member of the European Parliament’s environment committee, working on climate legislation amongst other things, before I took notice of CCS. 

A talk with John Ashton, one of the founders of E3G and at the time the climate advisor to the British foreign secretary, convinced me that the world was going to need this technology and needed it urgently.

That conversation took place 16 years ago, in 2007, and it led to me becoming the Parliament’s rapporteur on the CO2 Storage Directive and the go-to MEP for CCS-related matters for many years thereafter. It’s the reason why I am now Director of the advocacy body CCS Europe; I have unfinished business.

My conviction remains the same. I can hope that breakthrough chemistry and technologies emerge that will enable emissions-free production processes to be quickly developed at globally competitive costs, but the reality is that for a good while at least CCS offers the best way forward for hard-to-abate industrial sectors.

And then there is the need to reduce the concentration of CO2 already in the atmosphere, for which CCS is also essential.

CCS deployment is proving to be a painfully slow process, and Sod’s Law suggests that even with the new impetus that exists it will not develop as smoothly as we would wish. 

The opponents of CCS will seize on perceived failings to amplify their arguments. It would be wise to anticipate problems ahead while recognising and addressing our own weaknesses.

I fear that early projects will incur major cost overruns and late completions, that CO2 capture rates will not meet the claims made by developers, and that operating costs will exceed predictions. It’s common enough for large-scale projects not to fulfil their potential on day one.

I fear that operators of storage sites will impose requirements that unnecessarily force up costs on emitters, and I fear that CO2 leakage will occur somewhere – not posing a threat to human health or the environment but sufficient to create a media scare story that will adversely impact public opinion. 

I fear that life cycle analyses that take full account of energy requirements and leakage will suggest that the transport of CO2 over long distances achieves overall emissions reductions that are hardly worth the costs involved. In seeking to avoid debate over suitable locations for CO2 storage we are likely to be making use of the technology more costly and less effective than might be.

I fear that fossil fuel companies will foul the ground by implying, or continuing to imply, that the potential of CCS provides an alternative to fundamentally change our use of energy.

I fear that too many ‘environmentalists’ will ignore the advice of the IPCC, promote the idea that renewable energy offers a magic solution to every problem, and criticise policymakers who recognise the need for CCS deployment and promote strategies to secure it.

I fear that the industries that will need CCS to reduce emissions will not do enough, soon enough, to make their voices heard, despite the costs they know they will incur as ETS prices rise and free allowances come to an end. 

I fear that even those industries that stand to benefit commercially from supplying equipment for CCS projects will not invest sufficiently in persuading policymakers of the need for action (Are they just waiting for China to take another slice of their business?).

And, above all, I fear delay. 

Only one Final Investment Decision for a full chain CCS project has been taken within the European Union since I became involved some 17 years ago. Denmark’s Kalundborg project, confirmed at the end of May, intends to capture and store some 400,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

By 2050 we need to be storing 1,000 times that amount annually. Taking into account construction times, we need a FID on a CCS project on the scale of Kalundborg to be taken within the EU every 12 days for the next 25 years.

None of my fears need to be realised. Any technical weaknesses can be overcome as all concerned learn by doing. Compared to the building of energy production facilities across the world in recent years the scale of CCS construction required is nothing special. 

As for winning the support of policymakers for the strategies and financial mechanisms needed to promote CCS deployment? Well, that’s up to us. 

The message is very straightforward. Without CCS there will be no bet-zero; we need to invest in CCS to combat climate change. 

We just need to become more effective in communicating it.