In Germany, it is de facto forbidden to store captured carbon dioxide underground, and there is considerable skepticism about this technical possibility.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a process in which carbon dioxide is captured during the production of cement or coal-fired power generation, for example, and then stored underground. This prevents the carbon from being released into the atmosphere, where it would further fuel global warming. Possible storage sites include empty oil and gas fields or porous rock structures enclosed by a layer of impermeable caprock. In Germany, there are suitable storage sites, but storage is not legally possible at the moment (Factsheet on CO2 storage in Germany). By the end of the year, the German government is expected to present the second evaluation report on the Carbon Dioxide Storage Act (KSpG), which is intended to inform the Bundestag about the latest status on research and development of CCS. The report examines the environmental impact of CCS and what the technology can contribute to achieving climate targets. A legal clarification of the framework conditions could open up new opportunities.
CCS has a bad reputation in Germany
Particularly, a fear of public opposition meant that the topic was rarely taken up in the German public debate for a long time. There are fears that CO2 could escape from underground storage sites, and the technology is often suspected of being an escape door out of the coal phase-out. On the other hand, there are areas of application, such as in the production of cement, fertilizer or waste incineration, which we might not want to completely do without in the future—in contrast to coal-fired power plants. Ambitious climate targets, however, presuppose that no additional CO2 will be released into the atmosphere by mid-century.
Currently, we are putting all our money on yet incomplete plans to transport carbon dioxide captured in Germany by ship or pipeline to Norway, where it will be stored in old natural gas fields under the North Sea. Norway is seen as a shining example, where everything that seems unimaginable at home is possible.
Norwegian policymakers have been discussing CCS for more than 30 years
The reason why there is no significant opposition to CCS in Norway is due to decades of positive experience with the oil and gas industry and the broad consensus in society, ranging from green parties and environmental associations, to social elites such as journalists and civil servants, and from the general population to conservative parties. They are all united by a strong trust in technical solutions for climate protection, and thus also in CCS. In contrast to the German parties, since 2009 all of the seven parties in the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, have been in favor of carbon capture and storage in Norway in their election programs. Only the Progress Party, which belongs more to the right-wing spectrum, has been arguing to reduce financial support for CCS from taxpayers' money since 2017. CCS was already discussed at the end of the 1980s, at that time still as an add-on to gas-fired power plants. In his New Year's address in 2007, then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg described the construction of a CCS test plant with all process steps in Mongstad near Bergen as the "Norwegian moon landing." The national project experienced setbacks, but the narrative of CCS as Norway's "gift to the world" in the fight against climate change remained intact; at the same time, hopes are high that it will be a commercial success. Starting in 2024, captured carbon from a cement plant and a waste incinerator near Oslo will be transported by boat and pipeline to a storage site under the North Sea off Bergen. The project is partly financed by the government and partly by a consortium consisting of Equinor, Shell and Total.
In Norway CO2 storage is an all-society issue
In Norway, however, CCS is not just a prestige project of political, social and economic elites. In a survey conducted in 2020/21, we compared the attitudes toward CCS of politicians (n=1,149), bureaucrats (n=1,113), and journalists (n=379) with those of citizens (n=1,956). The survey was part of the first wave of the Norwegian Coordinated Online Panels for Research on Democracy and Governance (KODEM). We find high levels of support for CCS in all four groups. Only 5 percent of citizens and politicians surveyed rate CCS very negatively, and among journalists and bureaucrats, this percentage is even lower (3.2 and 2.1 percent, respectively). At the same time, however, the percentage of those who rate CCS very positively is highest among politicians; this is also due to the fact that in this group only just under 8 percent state that they do not know how to rate CCS. This proportion is much higher among citizens, journalists, and bureaucrats. It ranges from 16 percent (citizens) to 22 percent (journalists). Citizens are the most critical on average, but the gap to the other groups is small. We also find that voters of the CCS-critical Progress Party are also less positive about CCS than voters of other parties. This shows that the attitudes of parties and their voters are related to each other. It holds true for all groups, that those who find Norwegian efforts in climate policy too high also view CCS less positively, whereas higher trust in technology in general leads to a more positive assessment of CCS. In a European comparison, Norway is thus the major exception: in a 2016 survey, more than half (56 percent) were convinced that science and technology will solve the problems with climate change, while this proportion was only 29 percent in Germany and France and 40 percent in the United Kingdom (Steenjes et al., 2017). Compared to Germany in particular, many more Norwegians have heard about CCS and rate the technology positively.
Adapting the law can only be a first step in a German climate strategy
CCS has been an issue in Norway for a long time, and the fundamental question of whether to store carbon dioxide at all or whether the risks are considered too high have been settled; there, the debate is about the how to. If industry and politics in Germany now put the issue on the agenda, they will have to catch up in a hurry with a decades-long social discourse about whether and how CCS should be used in Germany. The discussion is gaining momentum, and the adjustment of the Carbon Storage Act set into motion by the evaluation report could be an important step, albeit only one of many that must follow if CCS is to become part of Germany's climate strategy.
(This summary is based on the article "Teknologien vil redde klimaet!" by Åsta Nordø, Gisle Andersen, and Christine Merk, which will appear in the journal Norsk statsvitenskapelig tidsskrift in spring 2023.)
Coverfoto: © SaskPower, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Kiel Focus series presents papers on current economic policy topics. Their authors are solely responsible for their content and their views or any policy recommendations they may make do not necessarily represent the views or recommendations of the Institute.