04 Mar 2024, 09:50

Quest for climate neutrality puts CCS back on the table in Germany

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. Yet Germany’s goal of climate neutrality by 2045 reopened debate on the issue of combatting CO2 emissions which are difficult to avoid, for example in cement production. Parties, including the Greens, are realigning their official stance, and the government coalition has presented first crucial elements of its upcoming carbon management strategy which is set to define guidelines for dealing with CCS. This factsheet provides a brief explanation of CCS technologies, their history and current status in Germany. [UPDATES to include EU industrial carbon management strategy draft + German key elements for carbon management strategy]

What is CCS?

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 and its Orca project started operations in Iceland in 2021.

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 (CCUcarbon capture and utilisation).

Most importantly until now, 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. Historically, most CO2 has been used for EOR, and in fact the CCS industry was born out of EOR in the U.S., said the Global CCS institute in its 2022 status report.

In 2022, the total number of commercial, large-scale CCS projects in operation worldwide was 30 (with more than 150 in the pipeline), of which 20 were EOR projects, said the report.

Graph shows pipeline of global CCS projects trends from 2010-2022. Global CCS Institute, 2022.
Image: Global CCS Institute, 2022.

German government addresses CCS in carbon management strategy

In February 2024, the German government proposed plans to make carbon capture and storage (CCS) possible to help the country reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045. State support would focus on capturing and storing or using carbon from industrial processes where emissions are difficult or impossible to avoid, according to a government paper on key elements of the upcoming Carbon Management Strategy.

However, Germany would allow CCS also for gas-fired power plants, although without state support. Captured CO2 would then be used or stored under the seabed, either in Germany or abroad. Underground onshore storage would remain out of the question for now.

One year after the government took office, the economy ministry had already published the country’s second CCS law evaluation report, which according to researcher Felix Schenuit of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) showed a “proactive approach towards CCU/S, in significant contrast to CCS policy until now.” While emissions reduction and avoidance, as well as efficiency measures would continue to be of highest priority, the government said it aimed to present a carbon management strategy in the course of 2023, but this has been delayed.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has already decided on such a strategy.

Diagram lays out framework for upcoming German carbon management strategy. Image: CLEW translation of German govt graph.
CLEW translation of German govt graph.

However, the renewed push for CCS originates from the former government. When then-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 CCS 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 was already dead in Germany: “Now it’s back,” she answered. The country needs a “wide debate in society”, she added. The new government aims to follow that thinking engaging a stakeholder process for the carbon management strategy.

Now it's back.

German chancellor Angela Merkel

Researchers say CCS necessary to reach climate targets

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.

The government’s latest CCS report states: “While the previous target of 80 to 95 percent emission reduction would also allow for development paths without the use of CCS, the need for CCS with the target of net zero emissions is a common consensus in current research.”

The scenarios to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its recent 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 2019, which called on the UK government to aim for climate neutrality. 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 have also been scenarios, such as those projected by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and Energy Watch Group, that do without CCS.

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 between 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 as it is too expensive, too controversial, or prohibited by other factors.

CCS gaining support in Germany, also within government coalition

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 CCU and CCS should be used as climate protection instruments for unavoidable industrial emissions.

However, for the German public to support this, intensive debates are needed. 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.

German parties have been split on the technology, with some calling for its use – such as the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the opposition Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Andreas Jung, who is heading the climate and energy working group of the CDU parliamentary party, told newspaper Welt that the conservatives would introduce a parliamentary initiative in 2023. He said “it will be about the legal framework and infrastructure, about storage in Norway, for example, but also about an open and sensitive debate about possible locations in Germany.”

Graph explains transport infrastructure for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Source: Global CCS Institute.
Source: Global CCS Institute.

Others are in outright opposition, such as the Left Party. The Greens in 2019 told Clean Energy Wire that the party is “open to all technological solutions for climate action,” but that these would have to be technically feasible, safe, economically sound and accepted by the population, and CCS did not meet these criteria.

However, Green Party politicians have voiced support recently, culminating in the CCS report of the economy ministry, which is led by Green Party minister and vice chancellor Robert Habeck - who as a regional politician in northern German Schleswig-Holstein had opposed CCS.

For unavoidable emissions, for example from cement production, “CO2 storage is a good option,” Green Party state economy minister of Hesse Tarek Al-Wazir told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a recent interview. “There are still many questions to be answered, from capture to transport to safe storage, but we have to achieve climate neutrality, so we have to look at that.”

At the same time, several NGOs still remain cautious on the prospects of CCS. The government had turned onto “a dangerous path” with the 2022 CCS law report, said Georg Kössler from Greenpeace when the report was released. He called for a “wide and honest” debate about any changes to legislation.

Public opposition in Germany

Public opposition in Germany has mainly focussed on carbon storage and less so on capture and transport. People fear what is often portrayed as the uncontrollable risks of storage and oppose the planned application on coal power plants, according to the German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech).

Erika Bellmann, climate and energy expert at environmental NGO WWF, says the debate leading up to the technology’s earlier rejection was misguided. “It did not centre on small amounts of residual emissions in industry, but was essentially about saving coal-fired power generation and the fossil energy industry. That led to many misgivings which cannot be dispelled overnight.”

In 2009, the German government’s cabinet adopted a first draft of a CCS law to transpose the European Union CCS directive into national regulation. This draft would have allowed for the large-scale use of the involved technologies.

However, voter protests against projects in the northern states of Schleswig-Holstein and Brandenburg prompted regional governments to call for temporal and quantitative limitations to CO₂ storage projects. The government in 2011 introduced a new draft that was limited to testing and demonstrating purposes and stipulated a much lower total amount of CO₂. After a lengthy legislative process it came into force on 24 August 2012.

2012 carbon storage law and what it means

Germany’s “law for the demonstration of permanent storage of carbon dioxide” set out rules that would have allowed three medium-sized pilot projects, but federal states can prohibit carbon storage in certain regions, and many German states have effectively introduced a complete ban. The law's deadline for applications passed in 2016 without a single submission. Therefore, it is currently impossible to start a CO₂ storage project in Germany.

2022 report to evaluate the carbon storage law – a game changer?

Every four years, the government must write a report to evaluate the country’s carbon storage law, including the international status of CCS technologies and their application, the environmental effects and how CCS is seen in climate neutrality scenarios by researchers. The report then lays out recommendations about the future of CCS in Germany.

The government said its latest report from December 2022 showed that “the technology for capturing, transporting and storing CO2 is already mature and proven,” but that the legal framework in Germany stood in the way of its application. The report showed that most climate neutrality research reports for Germany show a strong need for CCS by 2045 (34-73 million tonnes CO2 per year), and already by 2030 at million tonne-scale.

In the short term, the report recommends the introduction of legal changes that allow the planning and preparation of a CO2 pipeline infrastructure, as well as “short-term incentives for the capture, use and transport of CO2 from industrial processes and waste management.” However, the government says other reforms need more in-depth examination which would happen with the carbon management strategy.

Within the framework of this strategy, the government will “examine the possibility of CO2 storage in Germany, also under the seabed.” Should the strategy endorse CCS, the federal government would talk to state governments about how to make it possible, and push for necessary legal changes, also at the international level (e.g. concerning cross-border transport of CO2) and in the EU (e.g. CCU in the Emissions Trading System).

Meanwhile, the government made clear how it sees CCS: it recommends changing the name of the law (currently “law for the demonstration of permanent storage of carbon dioxide”), and to “explicitly include climate action in its stated purpose” while outlining the target of climate neutrality by 2045.

European framework for CCS/CCU

The European Commission in February 2024 presented its proposal for an EU strategy for capturing, transporting, trading, permanently storing and using carbon, as an essential part of its move to climate neutrality by 2050. The Commission aims to set up "a European single market for industrial carbon management," to be ramped up over the coming years and decades, to ensure that by mid-century, residual greenhouse gas emissions can be balanced out through CO2 removals. [This Q&A explains why the EU is working on the strategy and dives deeper into its crucial elements.]

The 2009 EU CCS directive lays out rules regarding storage and transportation of CO2 in the bloc, which each member state has translated into national laws – in Germany as the carbon storage law.

By mid-2021, national laws in Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ireland, Finland, Estonia, Austria and Denmark prohibited carbon storage, but all other countries generally allowed it, sometimes with strict limitations, said the German government in its latest CCS report. Denmark now allows pilot projects in the North Sea. Twenty of the 27 EU member states mention CCS and/or CCU as an option to decarbonise the industry or energy sectors or reach negative emissions in their 2019 national energy and climate plans (NECP) – but with widely differing roles for the technologies, the report said.

Within the North Sea Basin Task Force, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Flanders region of Belgium deal with CO2 storage under the North Sea seabed, and there are several other networks in which stakeholder countries debate CCS in Europe.

CCS has also played a role in European Green Deal legislation talks, such as the Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a proposal on carbon removal certification or the REFuelEU Aviation Initiative.

The EU also supports CCS projects through different instruments. The Innovation Fund, which is financed from emissions trading revenues, has ‘environmentally safe’ CCS projects as a main target. It supports several projects that supply CO2 for storage in various locations under the North Sea, for example. The Just Transition Fund (JTF), Horizon Europe, and the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) also support CCS/U projects.

The EU has put a special focus on key cross-border infrastructure projects that link the energy systems of EU countries – so-called Projects of Common Interest (PCIs), which are eligible for larger sums from certain support instruments like the CEF. Six CO2 transport projects have PCI status in the latest list from 2021.

In December 2022, several NGOs including Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Germanwatch called for an EU Carbon Capture and Storage Strategy. “As CCS moves from planning to deployment, in part with the aid of the EU Innovation Fund, the need for a policy framework, based on a robust set of guiding principles and safeguards, is needed to facilitate the deployment of critical infrastructure for industrial decarbonisation at scale by 2030,” they wrote.

Are there storage projects in Germany?

In Germany there have been a total of only four projects with the goal of carbon storage, and only one which got to a point where CO₂ was actually injected into the ground. At the Ketzin pilot site, 40 kilometres west of Berlin, scientists injected 67,271 tonnes on CO₂ into rock formations at a depth of 650 metres between 2008 and 2013. Research continued until 2017. The project “has shown that it is possible to monitor a CO₂ storage site” as the spatial expansion of the carbon could be mapped, according to the German government.

Since the entry of the CCS law into force in 2012, no storages or pipelines have been applied for, approved or built.

Photo of CCS pilot site in Ketzin, 40 km west of Berlin. Source: T. Kollersberger, GFZ.
At the pilot site in Ketzin, 40 km west of Berlin, national and European projects coordinated by the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) researched CCS. Source: T. Kollersberger, GFZ.

There have been several research initiatives in Germany, some financed by the government, which looked into the feasibility of carbon storage, examined capturing technologies or facilitated the scientific debate around CCS in general.

Impacts of CCS

CCS is controversial because critics see it as an expensive technology that could ultimately perpetuate rather than reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Capturing, transporting and storing CO₂ is expensive and uses a lot of energy. Costs of capture, storage and possible utilisation vary widely depending on the method used to capture carbon, the type of industry, the location and the regulatory framework used (e.g. state subsidies, carbon taxes, allowance prices in emissions trading systems such as the EU ETS). In a 2018 report, acatech said: “Without financial support and/or appropriate CO₂ pricing, CCU and CCS will not be able to achieve the required momentum.”

In addition, CCS may have negative environmental effects, which the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) assessed in a 2018 report. There is the risk of carbon leaks from storages or transport pipelines, or saline water being pushed up towards groundwater levels due to high underground pressure.

This is not so much an issue during regularly intended operation. Here, most of the potential effects “can be regulated in the framework of approval proceedings through conditions, avoidance and compensatory measures,” according to the UBA. Accidents, however, could lead to large amounts of CO₂ emitted into the surrounding area in a very short time.

CO₂ is a colourless and odourless gas. On land, the CO₂ will accumulate near the ground due to its greater density than air. At high concentration, this can become harmful to humans and animals. It would also lower the pH-value in groundwater and soil.

Injecting carbon into the ground can also induce seismic activity. There have been only a few instances where the seismic activity caused in large-scale storage projects or EOR was strong enough to be felt by humans. However, injecting carbon could potentially cause earthquakes that damage buildings or harm people.

Under the sea, carbon is largely diluted in the case of a leak. A strong increase of CO₂ concentration and acidification effects are to be expected primarily on a local scale, with potentially harmful or fatal effects on marine life.

Due to decades-long extraction of oil and gas, the ground under the North Sea is full of drilling holes from which carbon could leak. There are more than 10,000 such holes and it is questionable whether they can all be avoided when storing CO₂ on a large scale, Klaus Wallmann from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel told Deutschlandfunk.

Chemicals used in the process of capturing carbon can also become an issue for health and the environment and building up a CCS infrastructure will have consequences for the environment due to the construction of above-ground facilities such as injection systems, pipelines and access roads.

There are a myriad of environmental effects that could derive from implementing CCS on a large scale, as this could involve fundamental changes in the energy system, such as a shift from coal to gas in certain areas. While coal emits more CO₂ than gas when burned, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, so the climate effects might be similar if methane leakages along the value chain are not kept in check. Another example is enhanced oil recovery. Using CCS for EOR could lead to more emissions from the additional oil than the amount of CO₂ pumped underground. And should the CO₂ be transported via ships, these have their own emissions.

CCS projects in other European countries

The number of planned CCS projects in Europe has steadily increased in recent years, with more and more focus on large-scale projects. “The increase can be attributed, among other things, to the latest climate policy decisions, the climate targets agreed at the European level in recent years, and the rise in prices for emission allowances in the 4th trading period of the ETS,” said the economy ministry.

There are only two commercial large-scale CCS facilities in operation in Europe, both in Norway, Sleipner and Snøhvit. At Sleipner, one million tonnes of CO₂ annually have been separated from extracted natural gas and stored under the seabed since 1996. Norway is among the most experienced countries in the world when it comes to CCS. The Scandinavian country is advertising its plans to store huge amounts of CO₂ from neighbouring countries in empty gas fields under the seabed. In 2020, the government launched the so-called Longship project, which would demonstrate the capture of CO₂ from industrial sources, as well as transport and safe storage of CO₂. Parts of the project are classified as an European Union PCI.

While the UK does not yet have commercial CCU/S projects, it is aiming for a leadership role and has considerable potential to store carbon under the North Sea. The government advisors in the UK CCC have said that CCS is necessary to reach climate neutrality in the country. In its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, the government anchored investment in CCU and CCS projects with a target of annual capture capacity of 10 million tonnes CO2 from 2030. At the end of 2021, this target was increased to 20-30 million tonnes per year in the government's Net Zero Strategy. In the future, 47 million tonnes CO2 are to be captured and stored annually from 2050.

The Dutch government sees CCS as a crucial element in the measures needed to reach climate targets. In the Netherlands, the focus of CCS use is put on industry emissions and storage is planned exclusively under the seabed. As part of a multi-stakeholder Climate Agreement from 2019 (Klimaatakkoord), CCS is one instrument to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions already by 2030. However, the climate plan cautions that “CCS may not impede the structural development of alternative climate-neutral technologies or activities for carbon emissions reduction”. Due to a lack of public acceptance, political support and funding, no CCS projects have been realised on an industrial scale in the Netherlands to date. The Netherlands has a large number of depleted natural gas fields, which can potentially act as CO2 reservoirs.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.

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