In a new statement, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which represents the national science academies of the EU Member States, Norway, and Switzerland, says its latest analysis reveals that technologies and techniques for removing CO2 from the atmosphere are becoming even more significant with the failure to reverse the growth in global emissions. However, the huge risks of relying on future deployment of as yet unproven technologies means that EASAC re-emphasises – in line with its 2018 report – that mitigation must remain the highest priority, including the rapid development of viable CCS technology and business models. These negative emission technologies cannot make up for a lack of effort to mitigate CO2, but the size of the gap between current emission trends and those needed to meet Paris Agreement targets makes such technologies appear increasingly necessary. EASAC thus concludes it is time to include these in the EU’s future climate strategy. At present, a single technology has not emerged as the best choice and a suite of technologies will likely be necessary.
“As mitigation remains inadequate to keep warming within Paris Agreement Targets, applying negative emissions technologies at a potentially huge scale is increasingly likely to be necessary. Applying such technologies at the scale required would require the development of a new industry close to the same size as the current fossil fuel industry – a huge diversion of economic resources within the economy. To avoid dangerous climate change and bolster its economy, therefore, the EU should be examining the most likely technologies to be relevant to Europe’s future industries,” said Professor Michael Norton, Director of Environment at EASAC.
Negative emissions technologies
Regarding the role of negative emissions technologies (NETs) to carbon dioxide removal (CDR), this update refines our earlier conclusions as follows:
- In our earlier report we noted the danger of moral hazard in accepting as legitimate future scenarios that are based on assumed CDR of many gigatonnes of CO2 each year via unproven technologies. Acceptance of such models may weaken resolve in addressing politically difficult mitigation options in the near term and involves placing a bet on NETs rising to the immense challenge later. Ethically, the potential losers of a failed gamble upon NETs are future generations, especially the poorest among them, who would be most vulnerable if it failed and who could not possibly consent.
- Existing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) need to be strengthened and mitigation made the first priority ahead of any reliance on future NETs.
- The current failure to reverse the growth in global emissions means that meeting Paris Agreement targets depends increasingly on deployment of NETs.
- NETs need to be continuously and critically assessed and considered in conjunction with future mitigation strategy when determining Europe’s policy towards achieving Paris Agreement targets.
- Climate models suggest that early application of NETs in parallel with mitigation offers a greater chance of achieving Paris Agreement targets and avoiding catastrophic environmental and social impacts, than applying NETs at a larger scale later this century.
- EU and national governments should identify a European research, development and demonstration programme for NETs which is in line with their own skills and industrial base.
On specific negative emissions technologies and techniques
Reversing deforestation, reforestation, increasing soil carbon levels and enhancing wetlands remain the most cost-effective and viable approaches to CDR, and should be implemented now as low-cost solutions relevant both to developed and to developing countries. The capacity of these sinks, however, is likely to be fully used within a few decades.
The role of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) remains associated with substantial risks and uncertainties, both over its environmental impact and its ability to achieve net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The large negative emissions capability given to BECCS in climate scenarios limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C is not supported by recent analyses, and policy-makers should avoid early decisions favouring a single technology such as BECCS. A suite of technologies is likely to be required in the future.
Significant progress has been achieved with direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS) but it is not yet possible to identify a preferred technology.
Enhancing weathering and in situ and ex situ carbon mineralisation requires further basic research before its potential can be properly assessed.
In the past year, the USA has assigned tax credits to CCS projects, providing a financial incentive for CCS (and CO2 use) development. The UK conducted an analysis of strategies to reduce costs, and recently announced an Action Plan to enable the development of the first carbon capture usage and storage facility in the UK, commissioning from the mid-2020s. One aspect may be to establish transport and storage hubs similar to those envisaged in Norway, so that CO2 capture plans could be developed in locations where high-emitting industries are close together, and could use government-supported transport and storage facilities with lowest economic costs.
EASAC welcomes these belated first steps and reiterates its earlier conclusion that ‘efforts should continue to develop CCS into a relevant and relatively inexpensive mitigation technology’, and that ‘maximising mitigation with such measures will reduce the future need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere’. The European Commission recognises that CCS deployment is still necessary. In view of the most advanced facility for storing captured CO2 being outside the EU (Norway) as well as the uncertainty over the future position of the UK, the EU may need to coordinate with such facilities to develop an integrated European CCS system.
On bioenergy, switching from coal to imported biomass continues at many millions of tonnes per year. This highly problematic development is driven by rules which allow all imported biomass to be counted as zero emissions at the combustion stage. This accounting, in turn, reduces countries’ emissions declared in the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), though this practice may actually be increasing their emissions. The science showing the extent of perverse effects of counting all biomass as renewable has become stronger. By not differentiating between renewable and non-renewable biomass, it is more likely that the Paris targets will be overshot. Through their lack of action, policy-makers are increasing the risk of dangerous climate change. EASAC stresses that it is essential that bioenergy accounting be adjusted to reflect real climate impacts over the next 10-20 years and to differentiate between climate positive and climate negative uses of bioenergy. Moreover, policy-makers should eliminate subsidies for non-renewable biomass, a source of energy which is speeding up climate change.
Climate change has captured the attention of both policy-makers and the wider public over the past year, particularly in light of the increase in extreme weather. EASAC released its widely discussed report on negative emissions technologies one year ago, as well as publications on extreme weather and forest biomass. At COP24, the EU and leaders from around the globe met but could not agree to “welcome” the IPCC’s special report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, though they did agree on the rulebook needed to begin implementing the Paris Agreement in 2020.
About the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC)
EASAC is formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States, Norway, and Switzerland, to collaborate in giving advice to European policy-makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard. Through EASAC, the academies work together to provide independent, expert, evidence-based advice about the scientific aspects of European policies to those who make or influence policy within the European institutions.
Professor Michael Norton
EASAC Environment Programme Director