February 21. 2024. 6:30

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The EU needs a business case for carbon removals

If Europe achieves its 2030 biomethane target it will have unwittingly created the conditions to cheaply mitigate the carbon emissions equivalent to an entire member state, writes James Cogan.

Making biomethane is all about separating carbon dioxide from biogas, at a rate of nearly a kilo of CO2 per cubic metre of biomethane.

Europe’s 35 billion cubic metre biomethane target for the end of the decade will involve separation of 30 million tonnes of CO2.

Add in the easily separated carbon dioxide from ethanol production and the figure jumps to around 40 million tonnes. European wine and beer production could add another two million.

The total of this atmospheric carbon, captured first by photosynthesis then separated by fermentation, is huge. It’s as big as the emissions of countries the size of Hungary, Sweden or Ireland.

It’s not fossil carbon, but it’s carbon just the same. Removing fermentation carbon brings the same positive impact as capturing CO2 directly from the air but at a fraction of the cost of direct air capture.

Forty million tonnes of CO2 is way less than the 300 million the European Commission believes will need to be captured and stored every year by 2050 if Europe is to meet its climate neutrality goal, but it’s way more than the current target of 5 million tonnes by 2030 and infinitely more than what will be achieved based on current policy support, which is essentially zero.

If even a modest portion of Europe’s biomethane target is reached by 2030 the opportunity is still fantastic.

Of course separation of carbon dioxide at source is only the start. The gas then needs to be transported to geological storage sites, pumped into them and kept there forever.

The availability of suitable sites in Europe is not an issue. The Danish government estimates that there are sufficient geological sites – from depleted oil and gas fields to deep underground saline aquifers – to hold the equivalent of 300 years of the carbon dioxide output of Europe’s main single source producers of the gas. Only a small fraction of this would be needed.

Keeping the stuff underground is no issue either. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that carbon capture and geological storage practices – which they stress are essential for successful climate action – will likely result in over 99% of the carbon dioxide stored geologically being still safely stored there a thousand years later.

There aren’t any technology challenges requiring hoped-for scientific advances. Carbon dioxide from biomethane and ethanol facilities is already routinely separated and transported at scale, for industrial purposes. The practice just needs to be adopted generally.

Preparing the forever storage sites and pumping the gas into them also poses no special challenges, as it involves equipment and know-how widely available in the oil and gas sectors.

Europe won’t even have to worry about becoming a world leader in the field. The USA has already taken on the role.

The US Inflation Reduction Act has triggered a boom of carbon removal activity, by allowing businesses claim tax credits on each tonne put into storage in addition to revenues they generate on voluntary markets for carbon sequestration.

Recent investment announcements based on this policy in the US will lead to carbon removal capacity there of 30 million tonnes per year by 2025.

Capturing fermentation carbon dioxide from biomethane and ethanol facilities is among the cheapest ways of capturing large volumes of pure CO2 of any origin.

The combined cost of capturing and storing it forever is also cheap, comparing well or better than most of the carbon abatement measures currently being scaled up in Europe, in the transport, power generation, heating and industrial sectors.

But it still has a cost and right now in Europe there is no business case to match that cost. Current EU biomethane and carbon capture strategies will see all of that easily removed CO2 vented back into the atmosphere, in a lost opportunity of colossal proportions.

Clearly, the Emissions Trading System (ETS) has no bearing on biomethane, ethanol, beverages or direct air capture so carbon removal in these areas will not be incentivised by ETS carbon pricing, no matter how high ETS prices rise.

But ETS does raise public funds for emissions reductions outside ETS. These funds amounted to 25 billion euros in 2021 and growing rapidly.

A tiny portion of ETS revenue, and certainly under 1%, could be leveraged by way of an EU-wide Contract for Difference instrument to incentivise carbon removal well in excess of the Commission’s 5 million tonne target for 2030, and indeed well in excess of the volumes realisable from biomethane, ethanol and beverages.

Some ETS money is already being granted for building demonstration carbon removal facilities, but in the absence of a business case these projects will lack viability in operation and few if any will be built without grants.

Europe has made a good start, with the 2009 Carbon Capture and Storage Directive and the 2022 proposal for a Certification Framework. The Achilles’ heel of European climate and energy policy is dithering and over-complicating.

Creating an EU business case for carbon removals – starting from fermentation – should be the quickest and simplest piece of EU climate policy ever.