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Stockholm bets on carbon capture to hit net zero

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim.

STOCKHOLM — Sweden’s capital is betting on a combination of decades-old infrastructure and cutting-edge carbon removal technology to win the race to net-zero carbon emissions — a model EU policymakers hope can be replicated across the bloc.

The plan puts Stockholm in reach of its bid to reach climate neutrality by 2030, and could even shift it into “negative emissions” — meaning it’s removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces.

The city already has a leg up when it comes to reducing emissions thanks to its early adoption of district heating in the 1950s — a system that sends hot water from a central boiler to homes, businesses and public spaces around the city.

The 3,000-kilometer network has allowed the city to cut its greenhouse gas emissions from heating buildings by 80 percent, from around 2 million tons in 1990 to around 400,000 tons per year.

Since its last coal-fired boiler closed in 2020, the system runs increasingly on biofuels; ships carrying bark and sawdust from Sweden’s forestry industry are a regular sight from the city shores.

Now district heating company Stockholm Exergi, which is half-owned by the city, is trialing a system to trap and store the CO2 released by burning biofuel.

It says the technology — known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS — will reduce Stockholm’s emissions by a further 800,000 tons a year. And because the trees that provide the biofuel also absorb CO2 while they’re growing, the process as a whole removes more gas from the atmosphere than it releases.

City authorities say the system could be replicated elsewhere, as many EU cities look to slash their emissions to zero by 2030.

“We strongly believe that district heating, using BECCS, can be a viable solution for cities,” said Åsa Lindhagen, a Green Party lawmaker in charge of the city’s environmental and climate policy. “Given the significant emissions created worldwide by heating cities, a shift toward fossil fuel-free district heating solutions would lead to a dramatic cut in emissions, as Stockholm has shown.”

Few EU cities have district heating systems that are as extensive as Stockholm’s, but several with existing infrastructure are looking at ways to expand and decarbonize them. Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, are working with Swedish company Vattenfall to build out their heating networks and connect them to clean energy sources.

On a visit to Stockholm Exergi’s district power plant at Värtan earlier this year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the technology as a boon for Europe’s efforts to become climate neutral by 2050.

“This is the future that we see right now here,” she said. “Energy production which absorbs carbon instead of pushing it into the atmosphere.”

Stockholm Exergi — which has received €180 million in EU funding — expects the BECCS operation at its Värtan plant to be fully functional by 2026.

Comeback tech

On a recent visit to the Värtan plant, Stockholm Exergi’s head of R&D, Fabian Levihn, checked the CCS test unit. Housed in a small metal annex alongside the plant’s giant boilers, it is a nest of insulated pipes, dials, taps and tanks; large posters promoting the scheme hang on walls.

Although the science behind carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been understood for decades, it has never been used in a combined heat and power plant, Levihn explained.

“This test facility was made to verify that you can use this particular technology on a plant like this one,” he said. “We are now in the process of procuring for a full-scale system and we are talking to suppliers about how to improve the technology and integrate with the plant as effectively as possible.”

Stockholm Exergi also hopes to deploy the technology to its heating systems that run on waste incineration, which would take the amount of captured CO2 from 800,000 to 1.5 million tons per year. 

The company’s deployment of CCS marks a comeback of sorts for the idea. 

Norway was an early advocate of the technology in 2007, likening its carbon capture plans at an industrial site on the country’s west coast to a “moon landing.” But cost overruns and slower-than-expected technological progress forced it to shelve those ambitions in 2013, casting doubt on the feasibility of CCS.

As the technology improves and the climate crisis worsens, experts and lawmakers are now increasingly touting its potential — and necessity.

The U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading climate scientists, has repeatedly emphasized that removing CO2 from the atmosphere will be essential if increases in global temperature are to be held close to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The European Commission estimates the bloc will need to capture and use or store between 300 million and 640 million tons of CO2 every year by 2050 to meet its climate targets. It will present a “strategic vision” next year to clarify rules governing the sector and “give certainty to investors,” the EU’s energy chief Kadri Simson told a conference in Norway last month.

Some environmentalists argue that pouring money into developing CCS is a distraction from implementing the kinds of policy changes needed to radically reduce emissions. They warn the technology is a distraction from moves to curb high-carbon consumption habits.

Fern, an NGO focused on forest protection, is critical of BECCS specifically, pointing out that the process of harvesting and transporting wood also produces emissions and that allowing trees to grow for longer promotes biodiversity.

Still, Lindhagen, the Green city lawmaker in Stockholm, said BECCS complements the city’s wider efforts on climate — particularly in sectors like transport that are harder to fully decarbonize.   

“We believe district heating with BECCS can be a viable way to compensate for remaining emissions,” she said. 

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers. You can sign up for Living Cities here.



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