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Inattention to detail – the case of the missing CCS

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The Brussels rumour machine has been consumed by consideration of not one but two leaked documents this week. Political hacks and policy analysts have been transformed into modern-day soothsayers, trying to read the runes of future EU leadership priorities.

First was the leak of the draft conclusions on energy and climate for the October European Council. This was then closely followed by a series of rumours and photos of draft organigrams for a reconfigured European Commission. Who would be up? Who would be down? Would they have real power? What would it mean?

Both of these elements are crucial harbingers for the next 5 years. Personalities matter in Brussels, as does the collective influence of administrative expertise. A properly combined Energy & Climate Change Directorate might, for example, bring greater political weight and internal influence on the EU’s efforts to align its energy security concerns with its decarbonisation obligations.

The format of the new Commission and its leadership team will be considered in depth by the European Parliament over the coming months. Wrinkles can be ironed out, challenges tackled, resources provided. But the all-important remit for the new Commission on energy and climate change will largely be shaped by the first of this week’s leaks: the conclusions of October’s European Council. It aims to address the energy security implications of the Ukraine crisis, and set the path forward for a new ‘2030’ package of action on climate change.

The draft text leaked this week contains many of the elements that have long been expected: headline ambitions on carbon emissions, renewables and energy efficiency are all included, albeit still awaiting final agreement on target levels. Similarly, more detailed proposals are now emerging on funding mechanisms for technology innovation and the modernisation of the power sector in central and eastern Europe.

But with all the major pieces present, it can be easy to overlook what isn’t there. Amid the current push for a deal, and attention shifting to the incoming Commission, we run the risk that important elements are excluded – not just from October, but by default from the Commission’s work programme for the next 5 years.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) currently falls in this category – it is completely absent from the draft Council conclusions. Yet it was positively featured in the Commission’s energy security paper earlier this summer, as a potential means of enabling the use of domestic fossil fuels while addressing climate change obligations. Just as importantly, its role in enabling deep emissions reductions from industrial sectors such as steel, cement, chemicals and refining is increasingly recognised. The IEA already foresees that industrial CCS would be the majority use in Europe, while the Commission itself sees a bigger role for CCS on gas than on coal and lignite.

But CCS has fallen into the ‘too difficult’ box over recent years, due to the absence of sufficient funding and deliberate foot-dragging by utilities and fossil fuel interests. And CCS is indeed challenging: it is an infrastructure, not an incremental technology. And it involves a range of applications, technologies, CO2 sources, and CO2 storage options. In reality, CCS is a category, not a thing. It needs better support to build a business case, not abandonment.

Let’s be clear. CCS isn’t a silver bullet that will solve Europe’s 2030 climate debates. But what it can provide is a catalytic and transformational approach for deeper emissions reductions that adds value to the European economy, starting now and increasing through to 2050.

The challenge for policy makers over the next 5 years is to get CCS deployable at large scale before 2030. That requires the development of strategic infrastructure for CO2 transport from industrial hubs; the availability of sufficient geological storage in the North Sea; and the provision of targeted financing instruments to create a value proposition for investment. None of these will be solved overnight, but they are all sensible deliverables that the incoming Commission can take forward.

A smart European effort on CCS would reduce risks for all Member States, helping them find positive options to assist their increasing decarbonisation efforts. So the next step is simple, and should be uncontroversial.

The next draft of the European Council conclusions should include a paragraph on CCS. This should request that the Commission comes forward with a plan for strategic CCS deployment, covering the timescales of 2020 and 2030 en route to 2050. This can be linked to the EU’s refreshed efforts on industrial innovation and infrastructure modernisation. Similarly, member states should also agree to consider CCS in their national decarbonisation plans. This would provide the necessary remit for action, and a starting point for fresh thinking.

CCS doesn’t need everything resolving at once. It just needs a little attention.

For more information on CCS take a look at our new CCS showcase.

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