The Port of Antwerp in Belgium, Europe’s second-busiest container port, has long been identified as a site with great potential for infrastructure to capture, use and store carbon (CCUS). It is home to the largest energy and chemicals cluster in Europe, and its central location makes it well situated to both collect and transport carbon for those who want to get rid of it and those who need it. In 2019, the port began a study on the economic and technical feasibility of building CO2 infrastructure to support future CCU and CCS, specifically using CO2 as a raw material for the chemical industry.

Three years later, the project is still awaiting major investment. There are now fears that the new impetus for building liquified natural gas terminals to replace Russian gas imports will move potential investment away from CCUS. Still, the Port of Antwerp, which recently merged its operations with the Port of Bruges, retains ambitious medium-term goals for CCUS.

“By 2030, 50% of the [CO2] emissions at the Port of Antwerp need to be captured, liquified and stored,” said Piet Opstaele, innovation lead at the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, at an event in Brussels in May. “It requires a lot of new investment. There is existing infrastructure, but we also have to build.”

Antwerp is in a unique position to both store carbon and use it as a feedstock, he said, and its large size means there is the space and resource to do it. “We are the second-largest chemical cluster in the world. That is very demanding on energy; a lot of steam is used. We need green sources to produce that steam but also to create a different feedstock than the one which is used today.”

Antwerp is not the only port in north-west Europe to have prime potential for CCUS. The ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg and Bremen, Europe’s first, third and fourth-busiest ports, respectively, are nearby and have also been identified as promising spots. Despite this, the projects are still not receiving sufficient investment.

Call to action

“Choices have to be made on a European level,” Opstaele said in May. Earlier this year, a group of companies and civil society organisations from Belgium, the Netherlands and the state of North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany published a joint call to action for policymakers to move faster on CCUS. In the absence of an EU target, they are calling on the national and regional governments of north-west Europe to develop a common vision and strategy to construct CO2 transport and storage infrastructure to connect ports with industrial facilities.

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“A substantial part of the European basic materials production happens in industrial clusters in north-western Europe,” they write. “The ARRRA (Antwerp Rotterdam Rhine Ruhr Area) cluster produces 40% of all chemicals in Europe. Steel and cement companies also show a high degree of integration in this region… Given its highly interconnected nature, the cluster needs a renewed joint strategy towards net zero emissions in 2050.” Signatories include the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, GE, Total, Shell, gas pipeline company Fluxys, CO2 transport and storage company Porthos, and the NGOs Bellona and Clean Air Task Force.

The signatories say that while they understand that measures that decarbonise production (such as energy efficiency, electrification with renewable energy and circular processes) should be prioritised, CCUS should also be a significant part of this region’s emissions reduction efforts. They are asking north-western national and regional governments to survey the CCUS needs in the region and evaluate the risk of stranded assets; develop a common legal framework, including liability regimes, for the transport of CO2 across borders in line with the London Protocol; set up a joint funding mechanism that blends public and private financing for CCUS; and work with other countries like France to make sure the infrastructure can connect to other industrial clusters further inland.

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North-west Europe is seen as the clear forerunner for CCUS in Europe for two main reasons, says Ruth Herbert, CEO of the Carbon Capture & Storage Association, which promotes the commercial deployment of CCUS. “The first is that the North Sea offers a large potential CO2 storage capacity. North-west Europe has proven the CO2 storage concept with an operational store that has been running for over 25 years – the Sleipner CCS project.

“[Second,] the potential volumes of CO2 that can be captured from coastal and river[side] industrial clusters in north-west Europe is highly concentrated and represents a good opportunity to build onshore CO2 networks, resulting in rapid economies of scale, which can then be connected to offshore storage sites in the nearby North Sea.”

However, Herbert acknowledges there are significant hurdles for these projects and in particular for attracting the necessary financing. “CCUS networks represent unique challenges, which are not often encountered by energy technologies," she says. "The primary one is bringing forward a complex value chain across capture, transport and storage, with multiple industrial partners, on concurrent and synchronised timelines. CCUS is often recognised as presenting a stereotypical chicken-and-egg situation.”

CCUS wariness – even in north-west Europe

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about CCUS, no matter where the region. Critics point to the fact that full demonstration plants are still few and far between, and that major projects such as Chevron’s giant Gorgon gas field project in Western Australia have reportedly not lived up to what was promised. Maggie Wood, executive director of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, told the Guardian last month that the Gorgon project has “inadvertently become the poster child for all that is wrong with carbon capture and storage”. Critics say this is an expensive and unproven technology and investment in it diverts funds from proven alternatives like renewables. “CCS simply does not work,” Wood said.

This wariness has been shared by governments, none of whom want to be the first to take a chance on something that might not work. The national governments of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have been wary of setting CCUS goals. Although there have been calls for the European Commission to set an EU-wide CCUS target, earlier this year the EU executive confirmed it will not. “I am not sure a target here will help, because the member states as you know are extremely diverse on this,” said Mechthild Wörsdörfer, deputy director general of the Commission’s energy department, at the Brussels event in May.

“We are working on how to make the framework right for CCS and CCU in different fora, but a target would be extremely difficult to get through Parliament and member states right now,” she explained.

Finnish Green MEP Ville Niinistö agreed with this logic. “There will be some industrial facilities that need CCS in the long term, but in the short term there is a risk that if we have a CCS target we start to address production emissions [through CCS instead of] something more sustainable.”

However, CCUS advocates argue that cross-border efforts to build CO2 infrastructure will not lock in the technology where fuel replacement would have been a better solution. In the case of north-west Europe, Herbert says a “common, coherent approach to CO2 transport and storage infrastructure” is essential for those facilities that cannot switch fuels or can use the CO2 as a feedstock.