Carbon removal will be essential for the EU to reach net zero by mid-century. Yet the EU is failing to realise the potential of these technologies as key tools in the fight against global warming. To make good on the EU’s climate commitments, an ambitious strategy dedicated to promoting and regulating carbon removal technologies is a must.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is the umbrella term for different technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store the removed carbon durably. Their crucial role in reaching EU and global climate targets is not yet reflected in existing policy frameworks on the European level. Ongoing efforts to deploy and scale up industrial carbon removal are hampered by lacking incentives and an incomplete regulatory framework.
What is the current EU approach to carbon removal?
EU policy proposals and funding instruments were not designed with carbon removal technologies in mind, and there are currently no dedicated policies in place to support the creation of a European net zero ecosystem that includes CDR. Even if some steps have been taken towards introducing a monitoring and certification scheme for carbon removals, the EU has not developed a clear strategy to make CDR an integral part of EU climate policy. Until recently, the EU and the European Commission focused their attention on carbon capture, utilisation, and storage of CO2 (CCUS). While these technologies can play a role in addressing climate change, they must be clearly distinguished from CDR, which is the only family of technologies allowing to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere over a long period of time and generate negative emissions.
Fortunately, long-standing plans for the Commission to develop a strategy for CCS and CCU have been revised to also include CDR, with a recently launched public consultation on Industrial Carbon Management looking at both CDR and CCUS technologies.
What should the future EU carbon removal strategy include?
The strategy needs to provide solutions to several problems CDR faces in the EU. Here are the four main ones:
- lack of a dedicated legislative framework and EU strategy for carbon removal;
- insufficient support for using carbon removal;
- uncertainties regarding the storage and transportation of CO2;
- low public awareness.
The European Commission should use the Industrial Carbon Management Strategy as the starting point for mainstreaming carbon removal across EU policy. Centring the strategy on CDR will focus the minds of policymakers on carbon removals as part of broader climate policy and will help make the public aware of the need for carbon removal to successfully combat global warming. A dedicated strategy must make the case for when and how CDR should be supported and used, introducing guardrails and key principles for removals in the process. Crucially, the strategy must make clear that carbon removal can only be used to address emissions from hard-to-abate sectors and to achieve negative emissions.
A dedicated strategy should identify areas where more must be done on the European level to accelerate the development of carbon removal technologies. Recent moves to address carbon removal in the EU as part of the Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF) and the Net Zero Industry Act (NZIA) are welcome but stronger political signals and clear policy incentives are needed to create a CDR ecosystem in Europe.
Dedicated targets for carbon removal by 2040 and beyond in the European Climate Law will publicly show that the EU takes removals seriously. Reaching these targets would require rolling out ambitious incentives to deploy existing CDR technologies and to develop new ones. Given the uncertainty about the future demand for carbon removal, policy measures should focus on providing stability and certainty concerning the price of a tonne of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.
The Industrial Carbon Management Strategy could also be used to address the uncertainty surrounding CO2 storage capacity and carbon transport infrastructure, which is currently holding CDR back in Europe. The Strategy could introduce concrete measures to accelerate the identification and development of suitable storage sites all over Europe.
More ambitious targets for CO2 storage capacity building on the goal proposed in NZIA would be a good first step, as it would create the conditions for significantly expanding durable storage in most EU member states. The expansion of storage sites should receive funding from the EU and individual member states which can be combined with contributions from oil- and gas producers. Dedicated legislation for the transport of CO2 via pipeline, truck, or ship should also be introduced to create the conditions for a well-functioning carbon value chain.
Seizing the opportunity to develop a carbon removal strategy for Europe
The ongoing EU consultation on Industrial Carbon Management provides a good opportunity for the European Commission to develop its thinking around what the EU can do for CDR, and what carbon removal can do for the climate in the coming decades. Since carbon removal technologies play a crucial and distinct role in addressing climate change compared to CCS and CCU, it will be necessary to develop a dedicated strategy that caters to the specific needs of the CDR ecosystem. CDR technologies are in relatively early stages of development and require significant financial support and clear rules of the road to get off the ground. By setting out an ambitious strategy to help deploy and scale up the use of carbon removal technologies, the EU can deliver on its net zero climate targets and become the host of a thriving European carbon removal ecosystem.
By Valter Selén, Associate Policy Director