The Netherlands must start actively removing CO2, not just with trees

Temperatures are likely to rise faster than 1.5 degrees, which is why the government should invest in ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air now. So says the Scientific Climate Council (WKR) in an opinion.

Reducing emissions as soon as possible should remain the first priority, according to the advice, but simultaneous commitment to ‘CO2 removal’ is necessary to make the Netherlands completely climate neutral by 2050, the council believes. After that, that is indispensable to reduce dangerous escalation of climate change in the second half of this century.

“Achieving the climate goals is necessary to keep the Netherlands healthy, habitable and liveable,” says deputy vice-president of the WKR Heleen de Coninck. “This is only possible with rapid reductions in emissions and if large amounts of CO2 are removed over time.”

She adds that no miracles should be expected from the techniques and that capacity is limited. “We cannot capture CO2 endlessly. It takes energy and land, which we need in the Netherlands for other things, and it is also relatively expensive.”

Trees not a solution

CO2 removal is possible in a number of ways. First, by planting trees or increasing the amount of carbon in agricultural soils. The WKR considers those methods unsuitable to offset CO2 from fossil fuels.

That carbon has lain in deep earth layers for millions of years before humans dug it up or tapped and burned it. In the case of forests and soils, there is already a risk on a timescale of decades that, due to logging, forest fires or increasing drought, for example, the CO2 re-enters the atmosphere and the climate gain is nullified.

According to the WKR, the Netherlands should therefore invest in techniques for “permanent CO2 removal”. This can be done by trying to bind CO2 to rocks like olivine (with the disadvantage that extraction and pulverisation require a lot of energy) or by storing plant CO2 in underground gas fields. This usually involves burning biomass in power plants with CO2 storage.

We should not take offsetting lightly. In all sectors, emissions must be reduced to the maximum first.

Heleen de Coninck of the Scientific Climate Council

In April, the Environmental Assessment Agency proposed another remarkable option for the Netherlands: large-scale production of biofuels, e.g. for aviation, which is poorly sustainable, and capturing the CO2 released during the refining process underground. That way, in theory, negative emissions are also possible.

First reduce, then compensate

PBL also pointed out that the various sectors in the Netherlands are not becoming more sustainable at the same pace. Electricity supply will already be CO2-neutral around 2040, and heating, road transport and even heavy industry will have done most of the work by then.

This is not the case for agriculture and aviation, which are not expected to be climate-neutral in the Netherlands by 2050 either. The remaining emissions from those sectors will therefore have to be offset by CO2 removal elsewhere, both PBL and the WKR conclude.

This will soon involve larger amounts of CO2 than we can technically store, warns De Coninck. “We should not take offsetting lightly. In all sectors, emissions must first be reduced to the maximum.”

The report contains ten concrete recommendations. To prevent CO2 removal from unintentionally competing with emissions reductions, among other things, there should be a limit on residual emissions from aviation and agriculture. Therefore, CO2 removal should also be kept out of the European emissions trading system for as long as possible, the WKR believes.

‘Negative emissions’ needed to reach 1.5 degrees

The year 2050 can be seen as a finish line for the climate. The Netherlands and many other industrialised countries want to be climate neutral by then. And to make the 2015 Paris Agreement a success, global CO2 emissions should also reach net zero that year.

Yet the challenge is by no means over after that. Even if that neutrality is achieved, CO2 concentrations will have risen so high in the meantime that warming will go well past the hoped-for 1.5 degrees.

Therefore, large-scale CO2 removal is needed even before 2050, and the entire human race would even have to have negative emissions after 2050 to still stay below 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. Among other things, complete melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet may still be prevented.

The WKR thinks the government can still intervene in time now and make it interesting for companies to invest. The Netherlands has an interest in doing so, the council argues, and as a rich industrial country, it can boost innovation.

The government should therefore start a programme to “kick-start” various forms of permanent CO2 removal even before 2035, seeking cooperation with other EU countries.

Source: NOS