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Carbon capture and utilisation is unfit for 55

Carbon capture and utilisation (CCU), which is almost always only a temporary store of greenhouse gases, should not absolve corporations of their obligations to pay for their pollution, writes Wijnand Stoefs.

The European Commission has proposed introducing CCU into the EU carbon market policy framework as a part of its ‘Fit for 55’ revamp of the EU ETS. 

Under this proposal, companies would be able to exempt pollution from the EU carbon market, if it is ‘permanently chemically bound in a product’ and the carbon does ‘not enter the atmosphere under normal use’. The theory behind this is that industrial carbon would be captured by companies, and used to create other products (such as fuels, building materials or plastics). This carbon would then be automatically considered permanently stored if it was not released during use.

The EU carbon market forces polluters to pay for their pollution but would drop those compliance obligations for CCU. However, this only makes sense if certain key conditions are met.

First, the carbon is stored permanently (i.e. for centuries) in the product, and not only during normal use. This means that synthetic fuels produced with captured carbon would not be considered a permanent store of carbon as a fuel is consumed and burned during ‘normal use’ – re-releasing the carbon into the atmosphere. A plastic bag, in contrast, does not lead to any embedded carbon being released during normal use. However, the bag will decompose in nature or in a landfill, or be burned in an incinerator, which does release the embedded carbon again. Under the current wording, this plastic bag would then be considered permanent storage, even though it is far from permanent and, further, creates new plastic pollution.

Burning questions

Another problem is that incinerators are not included in the EU carbon market. This effectively means that, though the carbon contained in this plastic bag ends up in the atmosphere, it is removed from the carbon market, where polluters are meant to pay, and is shifted to another sector, where polluters pay nothing at all.

It is abundantly clear that the Commission’s current proposal leaves a massive loophole for polluters seeking to evade responsibility to design products that release their carbon after so-called ‘normal use’. Preventing this would require the end-life of a product – and any future resurrections of the product – to be taken into account before deciding whether it is a permanent store of carbon or not. 

Finally, the capture of carbon and the process to turn it into a product could be highly emitting activities., such as when the carbon comes from fossil fuels and the electricity used is fossil fuel-based. Emissions throughout the value chain of the CCU product need to be calculated so that only products that really decrease overall carbon emissions are incentivised. Otherwise, the EU is promoting increased emissions instead of reducing them.

If the European Commission wants to use the EU carbon market to push carbon capture and utilisation, it should ensure that the product is a net permanent store of carbon over its entire lifetime. All emissions during production, use and recycling/disposal need to be counted and included in the overall picture. Failing to do so would just create another escape hatch for EU industry to exploit to continue to avoid decarbonising.


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