Level 'low-carbon playing field' needed before CCS makes serious contribution to 2030 objectives

An ambitious climate package is absolutely crucial to the future viability of CCS, argues Theo Mitchell.

By Theo Mitchell

04 Mar 2014

Much has been made of the European commission's recent 2030 energy and climate policy communication: is it ambitious enough? Is the commission 'burnt out'? Is Europe no longer the leader on climate change that it once claimed to be? In the melee surrounding the proposals, little has been made of the potential implications for one of Europe's major emissions reduction options, carbon capture and storage (CCS). An ambitious climate package is absolutely crucial to the future viability of CCS. Clear political commitment to a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 40 per cent would therefore be very welcome and would help drive investment in all low carbon technologies, including CCS.

The detrimental impact of the 2020 renewables target on CCS is well documented and, for this reason, further targets for renewables are certainly not welcome. A new renewable energy target for 2030 will drive investment into renewables at the expense of CCS, and could actually divert investment away from efforts to decarbonise other industrial sectors. The key question for CCS will be how the newly-proposed renewables target – 27 per cent (binding at EU level) – is enforced. If it significantly influences policies at member state level then CCS could face another decade without the policy support needed to really kick-start its deployment.

"The proposed framework package clearly outlines the commission's commitment to CCS"

One potential solution to the renewables target conundrum could be to expand it into a broader 'sustainable energy' target under which CCS would be an eligible unit of compliance. Among other benefits, a broader sustainable energy target would provide member states with the flexibility to meet decarbonisation targets at lowest cost and in the manner most appropriate to their national circumstances. It could also drive investment in a range of low-carbon technologies, including renewables and CCS and encourage inter-technology competition and accelerate cost reductions as well as accelerating the decarbonisation of sectors other than electricity. For example, advances in CCS could also lead to the decarbonisation of energy intensive industrial sectors.

From a CCS perspective, any commitment from member states on plans to deliver CCS would be welcome. The newly proposed national plans for competitive, sustainable and secure energy would require national governments to outline their plans for meeting domestic objectives – including technology choices such as CCS - and could therefore be a welcome addition to the 2030 framework package. While there remains a renewables target and no equivalent 'milestone' for CCS deployment, however, the proposed governance arrangements will remain a cause for concern.

Although the commission fell short of the requests made by European parliament in Chris Davies' own initiative report on CCS, the proposed framework package clearly outlines the commission's commitment to CCS. Particularly welcome is the recognition that CCS may be the only large-scale emissions reduction option for many industrial sectors, such as steel and cement production. Now we have explicit recognition of the importance of industrial CCS from MEPs and the commission; the next stop is the European council.

Progress on CCS in Europe has been undeniably slow since the European council set its vision for 12 large-scale demonstration projects by 2015 back in 2007. The exact cause of this slow progress is hard to pin down. In reality it is probably a variety of factors including the financial crisis, the collapse in the price of emmissions trading scheme allowances, and policy decisions in favour of renewables. Getting the 2030 framework right is the first step in getting CCS back on track. The commission's initial proposals represent a good starting point for the ensuing debates between member states, but more will need to be done to level the metaphorical low-carbon playing field before CCS can make a more serious contribution to Europe's 2030 decarbonisation objectives.