COMMENTARY: Norway is a highly educated nation with significant climate awareness. Climate skeptics exist, but are rare and have limited political power. In Norway, most people, politicians and even oil companies agree that climate change is real, dangerous and the biggest challenge of our time. This is repeated on a daily basis through all channels.
In spite of, or maybe because of that deafening consensus, our emissions are hardly going down in reality. The biggest problem sector is of course the oil industry, which is responsible for growth in direct emissions as fields are aging. But very large indirect emissions as a consequence of the unburnable carbon this industry – with the government's blessing – are also adding to the global carbon budget.
Norwegians care about climate change but have not yet been ready to reduce consumption, exotic vacations, income from the booming oil sector, or prioritize investments in energy efficiency or renewable energy besides the old hydropower.
The first solution was to pay for emission reductions elsewhere. The Kyoto Protocol allowed this to some extent, but other solutions were investigated as not all reductions could be done abroad. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) was introduced as a “Kinder Egg”, with strong support from several environmental groups that insisted this was an easy, available, and well-working solution that just needed cash. It was also argued that CCS would not only reduce emissions, it would be a gift to the world that would buy our technology, allowing them to use more of our fossil gas in a future climate scenario. The stored CO2 could even increase oil recovery and make us richer while saving the world, it was argued (with no consideration of the carbon content in this new oil).
The Socialist coalition led by Jens Stoltenberg swallowed the bait in 2005 and 2006. They promised that a full-scale carbon capture and storage plant would be “our Moon Landing”, and entered an agreement with Statoil to build this at Statoil's Mongstad refinery located in western Norway’s Hordaland County. The government would pay all the costs for CCS, and Statoil would lead the project and also be allowed to build a gas power plant at the site. The power plant was quickly built, but the CCS solution had to wait. It has now been scrapped.
The only remaining traces of the “Norwegian Moon landing” are a very expensive CCS test centre (Technology Centre Mongstad/TCM) at the Mongstad site, which may or may not be used for future CCS research. And a very big pile of documents and costs.
So how could this happen?
In my perspective, the project was doomed to fail from the beginning. It was never true that effective CCS technology was readily available, no more in 2006 than today. Well-working carbon capture and storage that actually benefits the climate requires cost and energy-efficient carbon capture, efficient transport of the CO2, and safe storage. Furthermore, every part of this chain needs to be working well with the others at an industrial scale. None of this was present then, none of it is present now.
On top of this came that the Mongstad CCS project was developed as a political compromise solution to pretend to do something about climate change, not as an industrial development project or focused research. A consequence was that focus was put on the wrong pieces – for example on capture as soon as possible, rather than safe storage.
Mongstad as a site for development and implementation of unproven technology was also badly chosen: as a full scale industrial area with a complicated refinery, all changes would be costly and important space was already taken. Statoil’s own incentives to actually succeed with a well-working CCS chain were also limited.
For years, Greenpeace has labeled CCS as a “False Hope” in the climate debate. We have feared that the political focus on solutions which are not ready for deployment, and which can be used to legitimize continued reliance on fossil fuels in the energy sector, represent a dangerous decoy from the real efforts needed to combat climate change: Energy efficiency and renewable energy. These approaches already deliver huge emission cuts and have a huge future potential in implementing currently-proven solutions, as well as developing new ones.
We will welcome CCS if and when it may be developed to a stage where industrial scale implementation is feasible. Our recommendation would be to focus on capture and storage from cement and other industrial processes rather than coal and gas, as fossil energy needs to be phased out and renewable alternatives are ready to deliver.
But the most important point is that we cannot afford to base our climate policies on such complicated solutions while we have other tools already at hand. The disastrous Mongstad CCS “Moon Landing” should be seen as an important lesson learnt: Don’t dream up technological solutions, work with what we have.
Norway has lost eight years on this project. Don’t copy us.
Truls Gulowsen is head of Greenpeace Norway.