The Netherlands should focus on ‘removing carbon dioxide’, not just trees

Holidaymakers on their way to the plane in Schiphol

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  • Rolf Schottenhelm

    Climate Editor

  • Rolf Schottenhelm

    Climate Editor

The 1.5 degree temperature limit is likely to be exceeded, which is why the Netherlands must already invest in ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air, the Scientific Climate Council (WKR) says in an advisory report.

According to the advice, reducing emissions as quickly as possible should remain the top priority. But simultaneous efforts on “carbon removal” are necessary to make the Netherlands completely climate neutral by 2050, the council believes, and are therefore indispensable to limit the dangerous escalation of climate change in the second half of this century.

“Achieving climate targets is essential to keep the Netherlands healthy, habitable and livable,” says Helene de Coninck, Vice President of WKR. “This is only possible if emissions are reduced rapidly and if significant amounts of CO2 are removed in the long term.”

She adds that miracles should not be expected from the technology, and that capacity is limited. “We cannot capture CO2 indefinitely. It costs energy and land, which we need in the Netherlands for other things, and it is relatively expensive.”

Trees are not a solution

There are several ways to remove carbon dioxide. First, by planting trees, or by increasing the amount of carbon in agricultural soils. WKR finds that these methods are not suitable for offsetting the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuels.

This carbon has been sitting deep in the ground for millions of years before humans dug it up, exploited it and burned it. And in forests and soils, there is already a risk that on a timescale of decades, due to, for example, logging, wildfires or increased droughts, the carbon dioxide will be released back into the atmosphere – and the climate benefits will be canceled out once again.

According to WKR, the Netherlands should invest in “permanent CO2 removal” technologies. This could be done by trying to bind CO2 to rocks such as olivine (which is energy-intensive to extract and crush) or by storing plant CO2 in underground gas fields. This typically involves burning biomass in power plants while storing the CO2.

But in April, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency proposed another great option for the Netherlands: focus on producing biofuels on a large scale – for example, for aviation, which is difficult to make sustainable – and capture the carbon dioxide released during the refining process underground. In theory, negative emissions are also possible this way.

“Only compensate for small residual emissions”

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

But this does not apply to agriculture and aviation, which are not expected to be climate neutral in the Netherlands by 2050. The remaining emissions from these sectors must therefore be compensated for by CO2 removal elsewhere, PBL and WKR conclude.

De Coninck warns that this quickly involves more CO2 than we can technically store. “We should not take compensation lightly. First, we must reduce emissions as much as possible in all sectors.”

The report contains ten specific recommendations. To prevent CO2 removal from inadvertently competing with emissions reductions, remaining emissions from aviation and agriculture, among others, must be capped. That’s why CO2 removal must also be kept out of the EU’s emissions trading system, says the WKR.

WKR believes that government intervention is now necessary to scale up in time and make investment attractive for companies. The council says the Netherlands itself has a stake in this, and that it is of great global importance for a rich industrial country to drive innovation.

Therefore, the government should launch a programme to “kick-start” various forms of permanent CO2 removal before 2035. The Netherlands should also seek cooperation with other EU countries.

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