Green nature

Climate neutrality is built on negative emissions

The new WEC Germany report Pathways to Carbon Neutrality outlines the need for negative emissions technologies and evaluates their potential. Capturing, recycling, or storing CO2 will be vital to achieving a fully carbon-neutral economy and reaching the Paris goals.

 

By Barbara Simpson

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Cover of the WEC German report

The WEC Germany report on Pathways to Carbon Neutrality

The report highlights actions of countries and companies to fight climate change and shows measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal outlined in the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees global warming was clear: We need net-zero carbon emissions on a global scale by 2050 in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and, preferentially, limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Consequentially, there is a total emissions budget that may not be exceeded. In order to offset some of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can’t be avoided, negative emissions technologies are required, i.e. natural and technological solutions to capture carbon from the atmosphere. In its recent publication Pathways to Carbon Neutrality, the World Energy Council (WEC) explains different levers – from e-fuels to carbon storage. 

Avoid, recycle, capture

Generally, the currently available strategies can be divided into three categories:

  • those avoiding emissions through carbon-neutral processes,
  • those recycling emissions, e.g. from emission-heavy industrial processes such as steel production, resulting in no additional emissions, and
  • those actively capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the long term.

The WEC concludes that a combination of all three will be required in order to fully decarbonize the energy sector, massively reduce emissions in the industry and transport sectors, and use carbon capture and storage as well as negative emissions technologies to reach net zero.

 

Negative emissions technologies include forestation and reforestation as a comparatively low-cost, natural carbon capture method – whose impact is, however, less long term than geological carbon capture. In addition, its gains in carbon capture can be easily undone by natural disasters such as droughts and forest fires, or through pest infestation.

Other natural technologies include the production of biochar through pyrolysis, which has the added benefit of also enhancing soil fertility. Suitable agricultural practices will also result in enriching soil with carbon. While deemed promising, this approach is ultimately limited: Depending on the soil, it will be saturated with carbon in a matter of 10 to 100 years. Geoengineering ideas such as ocean fertilization or increased ocean alkalinity are less favorably assessed by the WEC due to their strong impact on fragile ecosystems.

Trailblazing projects

The report also highlights projects that are already adopting these negative emissions technologies:

 

  • There are different programs to offset carbon emissions caused by air travel, such as Compensaid. The service calculates costs depending on the time line of the chosen compensation scheme; whether carbon emissions are captured or avoided immediately, e.g. by investing in sustainable aviation fuel, or saved over a longer period of time, e.g. with reforestation projects in partnership with myclimate.
  • The Swiss start-up Climeworks has pioneered direct air capture technology to extract CO2 from the ambient air and either recycle it for use in e-fuels or permanently remove it by turning it into stone. Its negative emissions plant prototype in Iceland partnered with Carbfix, specialists in the underground mineralization of CO2, using emissions from the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant. The CO2 is mixed with water, pumped underground where it reacts with the basalt rock and turns into stone within a few years. The greatest challenge for wide-scale adoption will be the intense use of water.
  • The carbon capture and storage project Northern Lights by Equinor, Shell and Total will store liquefied carbon emissions from Oslo’s waste incineration and industrial processes in the Norwegian Continental Shelf. They are shipped to an onshore terminal on the Norwegian coast and then transported via a 110-kilometer pipeline to a storage facility 3,000 meters below the seabed. The current annual capacity is for 1.5 million tons of CO2, with an estimated total capacity of 100 million tons. Pending further investment decisions, it is scheduled for commercial operation by the end of 2023.
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Climate neutrality as societal goal

These are just some of the negative emissions projects that will assist the net-zero trajectories calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They will also play their part in offsetting the rising electricity demand from developing countries, which is set to triple by 2050 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

 

However, the WEC strongly recommends that climate neutrality become a deeply anchored goal in our society for emission reduction strategies and negative emissions technologies to take hold. In order to combat the climate crisis, unprecedented commitments in all areas are needed – and negative emissions technology is just one of these areas. As such, negative emissions technologies are a vital complement of GHG emission reduction strategies, as sectors will remain in which a complete reduction of GHG emissions cannot be reached or will be very costly to reach.

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October 6, 2020

Barbara Simpson is a business and technology journalist based in Zurich.

 

 

Combined picture credits: Siemens Energy, WEC Germany