Germany must put CCS back on the table, says Merkel

Carbon Capture has not been popular in Germany. The public are largely opposed, political parties are split, and Federal States are not approving new projects. Germany has only four operations, and only one has injected anything (not much) into the ground. Now Chancellor Merkel wants it back on the table, along with a public debate. Julian Wettengel at Clean Energy Wire runs through the reasons for the opposition (an excuse to keep coal plants running, leakage, costs, etc.). He then describes the different solutions, noting that Germany’s available total storage capacity is 20-115 gigatonnes in theory, mainly under the North Sea. Germany emits 0.8 Gt/year. Wettengel ends by taking a look at the projects in Norway, the UK and the Netherlands. Why the new thinking? Germany’s new goal of climate neutrality by 2050 means radical decisions must be made, and soon. And not just by the Germans: in 2019 just 25 million tonnes of CO₂ from the power and industrial sectors were permanently stored using CCS worldwide. Global energy-related CO2 emissions stand at 33 gigatonnes per year.

Years of protest against industry plans to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a lifeline for coal power made the technology a no-go issue for German politicians. But the new goal of climate neutrality by 2050 forces the country into a fresh debate about dealing with unavoidable CO2 emissions, for example in cement production. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said CCS will be necessary to reach the net-zero target, and her government is looking into tapping the sizeable carbon storage potential under the North Sea. This factsheet provides a brief explanation of CCS technologies, their history and current status in Germany.

CCS solutions
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) as “a process consisting of the separation of CO₂ from industrial and energy-related sources, transport to a storage location and long-term isolation from the atmosphere.”

There are several different ways of capturing carbon from fossil power plants or industrial facilities (e.g. cement production), including post and pre-combustion methods. Most projects target large point sources of CO₂ because using CCS on small and decentral sources is considered too expensive and impractical. Several large-scale facilities have been implemented around the world, such as Emirates Steel’s CCS project and the Petra Nova coal power plant near Houston, Texas. Direct air capture (DAC) is also a possibility, but the method is still in its infancy, laborious and expensive. Swiss company Climeworks is among the pioneers.

CO₂ can be stored in onshore and offshore geological formations, such as oil and gas fields, unminable coal beds and deep saline formations in the ocean, or used to create products such as plastic or chemicals (CCU – carbon capture and utilisation). The carbon can also be stored through enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which uses injected CO₂ to extract oil that is otherwise not recoverable. In this process, parts of the CO₂ used stays underground. There are several large-scale projects around the world, of which most are EOR projects.

19 large scale CCS projects worldwide

In 2019, the total number of large-scale CCS projects in operation worldwide was 19, according to the status report by the Global CCS Institute. That year, more than 25 million tonnes of CO₂ from the power and industrial sectors were permanently stored using CCS. Germany had total greenhouse gas emissions of about 810 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalents. Power and industrial applications of large-scale CCS facilities in operation, under construction and in advanced development. Global CCS Institute, 2019.

Merkel puts CCS back on the table

When Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in May 2019 that Germany would join the pledge of other EU member states to become climate neutral by 2050, the conservative politician made clear that in her view this would require the use of carbon capture and storage to deal with unavoidable emissions. She thus put a highly contentious topic back on the agenda, acknowledging that “CO₂ storage is very controversial in Germany and many people are worried”.

In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Merkel was asked whether the CCS debate wasn’t already dead in Germany. “Now it is back,” she said. The country needs a “wide debate in society” and CCS will also be on the agenda of her cabinet, she added. Energy and climate scientists say CCS will likely be needed in the future. While emissions in the energy sector could be reduced to zero with renewable sources, some emissions in agriculture or from industrial processes, such as cement production, will be unavoidable in the long term.

CCS is essential, says IPCC, EC and others

The scenarios to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report also included CCS. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) stated that “CCS is a necessity not an option” for reaching net-zero emissions in its report from early May, which called on the government to aim for climate neutrality. And the European Commission’s proposed long term climate strategy says CCS is necessary, especially in energy-intensive industries “and – in the transitional phase — for the production of carbon-free hydrogen.”

Most studies on increasingly decarbonised future energy systems predict the use of CCS will increase in lockstep with increasingly ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets. The Federation of German Industries (BDI), Germany’s powerful industry lobby, said in its landmark study on possible paths to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the economy that reaching an ambitious emissions reduction goal of up to 95 percent would require exponentially larger sums of investments and the use of “currently unpopular technologies such as CCS”, particularly in tackling industry emissions.

However, there are also scenarios, such as those by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and Energy Watch Group, that do without CCS.

Germany’s government, meanwhile, has picked up Merkel’s initiative. In its Climate Action Programme 2030, which was approved in autumn 2019, the government says it will set up a CCS programme, noting that most studies show the technology to be indispensable for reaching greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. CCS offers “a comparatively low cost reduction possibility for unavoidable emissions from industrial processes in the mid-term”, it points out. The government thus plans to intensify CCS research and development, as also stated in the economy ministry’s Industry Strategy 2030.

Stored where? Is there enough space?

When it comes to storing carbon, the German government no longer envisions projects on land, but rather aims to tap “the big European offshore potential” in the North Sea, and to intensify cooperation with neighbouring countries. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) assesses the geological conditions in Germany in coordination with state services to enable the government to evaluate the potential for carbon storage. The BGR estimates German total storage capacity to be 20-115 gigatonnes (Gt) in theory, mainly under the North Sea, a spokesperson told Clean Energy Wire. But he added some of the capacity will likely not be used because it is too expensive, too controversial, or prohibited by other factors. The country currently emits around 0.8 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, and global energy-related CO2 emissions stand at 33 gigatonnes per year.

CCS is gaining support

Today, many in the German research community and even some environmental NGOs support the idea of using carbon storage if it is not employed to extend coal and gas-fired power generation. In September 2018, an alliance of German experts from science, industry, government and environmental organisations called for an immediate and open public debate on whether and how carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) and storage (CCS) should be used as climate protection instruments for unavoidable industrial processes.

However, for the German public to support this, intensive debates would be required. CCS has not featured in recent polls on the public’s acceptance of technologies needed as part of the energy transition because the subject has been widely seen as a no go. Researchers at the Fraunhofer ISI institute concluded in an analysis of public acceptance published in 2015 that the technology barely had any support. “The results indicate that Germany’s citizens assess CCS as a high risk technology and do not perceive its benefits,” they wrote.