Carbon Capture Storage and Use: tool or pretext?

26 December 2021

Amsterdam is committed to reducing 95% of its emissions by 2050. However, the city releases 50% more CO2 today than it did in 1990, mainly due to its energy production and construction works. To help reach its ambitious goal, the Dutch city’s Climate Neutral 2050 Roadmap includes Carbon Capture Storage and Use (CCSU) technologies.

The pros of Carbon Capture Storage and Use

Carbon Capture Storage and Use technologies are employed, as the name suggests, to capture CO2 from a flue gas stream or directly from the air; transport it via trucks, ships or pipelines; and store it permanently underground (Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS), or convert it into fuel or other products (Carbon Capture and Use, CCU).

For example, in Stockholm, the local utility heating company, Exergi, is working on a bioenergy plant that will use carbon capture and storage technologies and that could start operating from 2024. Plants like these rely on combustion, fermentation, pyrolysis, or other biomass conversion methods to extract energy. Biomass gathers carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere when it grows, and then releases it during the conversion. However, projects like the one in Stockholm collect the CO2 released and transform it into a liquid or solid state – such as biochar – that is then stored underground.

Cities like Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki are planning to or are already using these technologies to reach their climate goals. They argue that it’s unrealistic to think of achieving these objectives without using Carbon Capture Storage and Use technologies. Professor Myles Allen from the Oxford Net Zero initiative and the NEGEM project, painted a very vivid picture during a presentation with Eurocities members: “What does it mean to stop global warming by stopping the use of fossil fuels by 2050? For example, Britain would have to close all airports and shipping ports and do all imports only through the tunnel.”

The message these cities are sending is that we are not changing fast enough for this shift to make a difference. While in the long run a combination of reducing carbon production and creating carbon sinks will do the trick, in the short term it’s urgent to rely on carbon capture – especially to counterbalance the last 20-25% of CO2 production – to slow down global warming.

“It is ethically and morally important that we are willing to contribute to climate efforts on a more advanced scale and develop the new technologies we need,” says Raymond Johansen, Governing Mayor of Oslo.

At what cost?

If the rapidity of this solution is attractive compared to reducing carbon production – which would mean a conversion of some sectors – its cost can be off-putting. Carbon Capture and Storage is more expensive than existing CO2 taxes or emission fees. In addition, because companies can’t make an income by selling the captured carbon, the costs will be transferred to consumers and service users. This means more expensive energy, raising questions about how to distribute the extra cost fairly.

Storage poses another challenge. Countries within the EU can export and receive captured carbon from each other for offshore geological storage. This is something Helsinki is aware of as they look for places to store carbon outside the city. Finland has limited storing capacity, while its neighbour, Norway, has plans to capitalise on their extensive storing capacity.

The Northern Lights carbon capture project is looking into moving liquid CO2 by ship and then via pipelines to a permanent storage location under the North Sea. The project estimates its storage capacity to be 32.5 million tonnes, one of the biggest of its type in Europe.

So it’s only natural that Oslo, Norway’s capital, is testing carbon capture and storage solutions for its most pressing issue: 20% of the city’s carbon emissions come from incinerators. A concern not limited to Oslo: Europe has a total of 450 incineration plants that produce around 90 million tonnes of CO2. Oslo’s plant, which burns rubbish that cannot be recycled to generate heat and electricity, is looking at a retrofit that will trap its emissions and store them instead of allowing them to enter the atmosphere.

“One of my biggest ambitions is to turn the Klemetsrud Waste-to-Energy plant into a blueprint for how cities across Europe can cut carbon emissions while tackling their waste,” says Johansen.

A test at the Klemetsrud facility showed that 90% of the 400,000 tons of CO2 produced could be captured. Because more than 50% of the waste burned in the facility stems from biological materials, Klemetsrud claims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. “Oslo is small enough and big enough to provide a test bed for Western Europe,” says Johansen.

Not all on the same page

Not all EU countries are, however, welcoming the prospect of becoming dumping grounds for CO2. Germany’s public opinion reacted against projects in the northern states of Schleswig-Holstein and Brandenburg, prompting regional governments to call for temporal and quantitative limitations to CO2 storage projects. Copenhagen has been looking into carbon capture and storage options, but current legislation makes it impossible to store CO2 in Denmark.

“Nantes Metropole still appears to be reserved about CO2 capture and geological storage,” says Ms. Julie Laernoes, second Deputy Mayor in charge of Resilience and Prospective, and Nantes Metropole Vice-President in charge of Climate Action, Energy and Food Transition, Agriculture, Risks and Pollution and Economic Changes, “because of the local industrial and geological context, but also because of the cost of the technologies implemented, social acceptance and the timeframe for the development of these technologies.”

Cities that are reluctant to make a move fear that relying on carbon capture technology will reduce the efforts to lower carbon emissions in the first place, abandoning projects that favour cleaner alternatives to creating heating and energy, like renewables. The same applies to commitments to recycling and reusing materials. If there’s an option to balance out the CO2 cities produce, would there still be enough motivation to put everything in place to make less of it in the first place?

Nantes and other cities insist on prioritising other solutions. “Faced with the climate emergency, Nantes Metropole is committed to a trajectory of carbon neutrality by 2050,” says Laernoes. “To achieve this neutrality, the city will continue and intensify the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the most emitting sectors. Following the adoption of its new Climate Plan in 2018, Nantes Métropole is committed to maintaining and then increasing the areas that will ultimately contribute to creating significant carbon sinks – protection of wetlands, conservation of wet meadows, development of hedgerows and forest areas. The challenge for the metropolis is to cooperate with its more rural neighbours to ensure the development of these sinks.”

Use of CO2 as a solution for the aviation sector

An added issue of this debate is posed by captured CO2 that is reused instead of stored. The captured carbon can be employed directly for commercial purposes or converted and used in new products like chemicals and fuels. The latter has sparked interest in the aviation sector because, when combined with hydrogen, it forms hydrocarbons that can substitute fossil fuels.

“Producing fuels from Carbon Capture and Use only delays CO2 emissions and can therefore only provide an emissions reduction when fossil fuels are replaced. The production of synthetic hydrocarbons requires a significant amount of electricity, which must be produced from renewable sources if synthetic fuels can achieve any emissions reductions,” warns the Cities Aim at Zero Emissions report.

So far, there’s no united front on how to use and rely on Carbon Capture Storage and Use, and the jury is still out on balancing the pros and cons of these technologies. However, what’s clear is that cities don’t have much time left to make a difference and are using all weapons in their artillery to do so.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer