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9 October 2018

In Norway’s ancient fjords, I didn’t find a magic cure for climate change – but I did find a will to act

Carbon capture and storage is still controversial, yet the technology is bringing key players from politics and big industry to the same table.  

By India Bourke

This week, international scientists gathered to announce their gravest warning yet: the world needs to reduce emissions by 45 per cent within just 12 years, if humanity is to secure the future liveability of the planet. 

According to a new report from the International Panel on Climate Change, the world must invest almost a trillion dollars every year to 2050, and change almost all aspects of society in order to limit global warming to a viable 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. “I have no doubt that historians will look back at these findings as one of the defining moments in the course of human affairs,” the lead climate negotiator for small island states, Amjad Abdulla, told Climate Home.

It is increasingly hard in such a context, not to succumb to a crisis of hope. George Monbiot’s call to entirely replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy technologies is laudable. But with global carbon emissions currently on the rise, I also struggle to believe that such a wholesale transformation of politics and infrastructure can be achieved in time– thanks to growing energy demand and slowing efficiency gains.

There are simply some services, like gas for heating, that will be extremely expensive to shift to electricity. And some industries, like cement production and waste-incineration, where it will be impossible to decarbonise entirely. Not to mention the issues of the big oil’s unwavering commitment to its shareholders’ profits, or the dependence of many developing economies on coal. 

And yet last week I visited a place which convinced me, for a few short hours at least, that viable solutions are still within our collective grasp. Not because they reject the involvement of the controversial fossil-fuel industry – but precisely because they’re putting those imperfect goliaths to use.

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Nestled in the ancient, watery fjords of Western Norway, lies the world’s largest test centre for the capture of carbon-dioxide emissions. The facility’s towering columns and silvery pipelines rise up like a contemporary Excalibur from the surrounding lakes. 

By filtering waste gas (from oil, coal, gas or other industrial processes) through a chemical solution and heating it with vast amounts of steam, carbon dioxide can be extracted and then compressed into a liquid form. The fluid can then be pumped deep underground, for permanent storage between primordial layers of rock.

This process of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one that has been touted for decades as a cure for the climate crisis. Yet in the UK, the technology has never received the same level of government support as the truly “renewable” solar and wind. Just weeks before the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the British government cancelled its £1bn investment in CCS research.

One reason for this reticence is the technology’s status as a child of the fossil fuel industry. If deployed at scale, there are fears it risks justifying the continued use of fossil fuel power plants and prolonging the age of coal. It will also require vast amounts of money, energy and water to run, and could encourage the take-off of highly problematic, sister industries – such as the burning of biofuels (including forests) to create negative emissions. Funds would consequently be better spent on supporting energy efficiency and truly renewable technology, critics say. 

Yet in Norway, a powerful coalition of ministers, oil and gas industry partners, and scientists have come together to support efforts towards a full scale roll-out of carbon capture technology – including the burial of the waste carbon deep inside the North Sea’s continental shelf.

Key among these proponents are three powerful and persuasive women. Speaking at the research facility at Mongstad, Trude Sundset, the CEO of Gassnova, Norway’s state enterprise for supporting research in carbon capture technology, extolled the virtues of the technology with a compelling awareness of the concerns. Geologists and oil-rig workers could be re-trained to take care of the buried CO2, she said, while natural gas could also be paired with CCS to create hydrogen. In turn, this could help decarbonise the heating, transport and the steel industries.  

Her support for the technology was echoed, the following day, with warmth and energy by Liv Monica Stubholt, chairman of a waste-to-heat power plant in Oslo and the former deputy minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We’re delighted that waste management has come out of the shadows,” she said of the plant, which has pitched to be part of Norway’s first, full-scale carbon capture, transport and storage project. “[Waste-to-heat energy] was at the bottom of the totem pole, but now we have risen to the top, thanks to the need for a circular economy.”

Then at a dinner that evening, Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde, state secretary for the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, reminded the room that Norway is seeking EU partners to help finance this full-scale trial. Dressed elegantly in black, her mission was clear: sell the full-scale CCS demonstration to the rest of Europe.

The notion that EU countries should help pay for this project, including the viability of the North Sea shelf as a burial site, is still contentious however. Norway has amassed vast wealth through selling its North Sea oil to the rest of the world (as is everywhere evidenced by everything from their pristine highways, to their expensive fashion), and could more than cover the costs itself. As could the oil and gas industry, if they so chose.

But while Sundset acknowledged that, yes, Norway may profit from opening up its continental shelf to other nations as a storage facility, she also argued that “buy-in” from foreign governments was essential if the technology is to succeed on a mass scale. “The best way of seeing that you have real EU engagement and interest is money: you have to see the whole industry moving,” she said.

And perhaps strangely, it was this last point that most persuaded me of the wider value of carbon capture storage as a whole. Especially on a press trip sponsored by Gassnova, Norway’s state body for the industry, I was fully prepared to remain sceptical about the technology – not least because so many other, cheaper ways of tackling emissions still don’t receive sufficient state support (energy efficiency in homes, to name just one). And yet looking around the table, I saw politicians from the left and right of Norwegian politics, plus representatives from environmental groups, and from the oil company Shell – all committed to the same goal.

In such ways, the project Norway is trying to launch is not just a test-bed for a new technology, but for a new climate politics; one that doesn’t pitch left and right, big industry and state support against each other, but instead offers a common ground where these groups can meet and better tackle the climate crisis together. 

Writing about the climate change is so hard precisely because the challenge requires a multiplicity of solutions, not any single knight to arrive in shining armour. Yet in the panoply of heroes that it will take to solve the climate crisis, CCS may just provide an opportunity for the oil and gas majors to prove they can act unselfishly and finally tell the truth. 

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