Bridging the Gap to Climate Neutrality: How to Finance a European Net Zero Infrastructure

Carbon Removal Park Baltic Sea under construction

Tackling climate change will be nearly impossible without advancements in climate tech. There is a consensus that we need a set of technologies to address the challenges of climate change. New solutions to decarbonize sectors like energy, heavy industry, food, mobility, and the built environment show promise that we might be able to reach net zero emissions by the middle of this century to mitigate the worst effects of global warming.

However, the first global stocktake of the Paris Agreement, presented at COP28 in Dubai last year, reaffirmed that we are off track with our decarbonization efforts to meet the 1.5°C target. Most of the technologies needed to meet our targets are not ready yet. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 35% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 will come from technologies that are currently only under development or not yet at commercial scale.

While emissions reductions will be the main source of climate mitigation until 2050, we will also have to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We will need carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to get to a true net zero, especially in industries with hard-to-abate emissions. But just like emissions reductions, CDR is not on the right track yet. A very recent study by a group of researchers from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change indicates that if countries do not adjust their policies, we will also see a large “CDR gap.” According to the study, CDR will increase by up to 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050 if governments implement their current mitigation pledges. Depending on different IPCC scenarios, there will be a “CDR gap” in 2050 between 0.4bn – 5.5bn tonnes of CO2 removed per year.

To sum it up: There is a net zero gap – both reductions and removals are falling short

There are several tools to bridge this gap, but certainly funding for net zero technologies is one of them. There is currently a financing gap of up to $2 trillion to meet our targets. This is especially the case for capital-intensive hard-tech and infrastructure projects. Not-yet-mature technologies, lack of buyers, and the green premium (i.e., the additional cost for clean technology vs. conventional technology) hamper the appetite of investors.

So, it is no surprise that funding for CDR is lagging behind. In 2023, there was a total of $1.25 billion in early-stage capital investment in all forms of CDR, which was only 0.076% of the accumulated climate tech investment ($1.64 trillion). Looking into the future, these figures represent only a fraction of what is needed to scale up CDR to where we need it to be: according to McKinsey, cumulative investment in CDR required to deliver net zero in 2050 ranges between $6 trillion to $16 trillion, depending on the removal volumes needed.

Today, one key source of funding for CDR is the voluntary carbon market (VCM). Current projections indicate that the VCM could reach a $3 billion value this year. The estimated demand for durable CDR is about 40–200 Mt CO2 ($10 billion–$40 billion) in 2030, and up to 80–870 Mt CO2 ($20 billion–$135 billion) in 2040.

Yes, private investments in CDR companies as well as the demand for carbon removal are growing, but we need to think about how to finance the “rest.”

Besides the private sector, we also need to see governments move quickly: fiscal incentives, regulatory frameworks, and strategic investments are needed to scale up CDR to bridge the net zero gap. The European continent has a major role to play.

© Lamb. W. et al. (2024), The carbon dioxide removal gap, Nature Climate Change
The European elections mark a critical moment in our journey to net zero

This year’s election of the European Parliament might have a decisive impact on the bloc’s climate ambition – hence also on its ambition for CDR. Ahead of the election, many policy wonks, environmental activists, and commentators have warned against a rollback of the European Green Deal – the EU’s ambitious plan to become the “first climate-neutral continent.”

As predicted, climate-progressive parties heavily lost in this year’s election. Although it is too early to predict what this will mean for EU climate policy, the conservative fractions of the parliament who won the election with increased numbers want to see a “less restrictive” Green Deal. Besides the new setup of the parliament, the election will also define the makeup of the new EU leadership. The next few months will give us some idea of where the EU is heading.

The last term (2019-2024) saw an extensive overhaul of EU climate and energy policies. The bloc’s ambition to become the first net zero continent met external crises like the COVID pandemic as well as the Russian invasion but still managed to present wide-ranging climate policies.

If European climate policy were a house, the climate law with the enshrined net zero goal was the construction plan, the 2021 Fit-for-55 package laid the fundamental groundwork. We now need to think about the right building material and how to bring up the walls. The time is now – we only have five more EU policy terms until net zero in 2050.

Within the next five years, the EU needs to establish a net zero infrastructure that will put us in the position to achieve our goal of removing more emissions than we emit.

A net zero infrastructure for the EU – a public good needs public support

Net zero will first and foremost mean drastic emission reductions. By 2030, the EU has committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels. For 2040, the outgoing EU Commission proposed a reduction of 90% by 2040. In addition to reductions, we will also need carbon removals. For 2040, the EU Commission has proposed a land sink and carbon removal target of 400 Mt carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually.

The removal of CO2 into permanent storage on this scale needs to be understood as a public good or public good infrastructure. CDR functions as planetary waste and recycle management. In certain cases, it can also provide renewable energy; in other cases, it provides a sustainable source for carbon, especially for industries with hard-to-abate emissions. At Novocarbo, we remove CO2 from the atmosphere and use the carbon to create sustainable products for industry transformation while creating climate-neutral heat during the process.

The public-good nature of CDR demands governmental action and intervention. For the EU, this means that the bloc needs to support this public good infrastructure – the net zero infrastructure – as part of its green transition.

Setting up this net zero infrastructure is capital-intensive and from an investor’s perspective a high-risk and long-term commitment. Hence, governments will need to play a more active role. We will need to build an infrastructure to remove, transport, and store the CO2. For this to happen, we see three potential levers to finance the net zero infrastructure for CDR solutions like Biochar Carbon Removal.

  • 1. Public Procurement

    To spur demand in CDR, the EU and its member states need to consider public procurement. For CDR, public procurement can take the form of (1) Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs), (2) contracts for difference (CfDs), and (3) direct procurement of carbon credits.

    FiTs have been an effective tool for scaling up mature and less mature renewable energy technologies. In the case of FiTs for carbon removal, governments would set up long-term agreements with carbon removal suppliers, agreeing on a fixed price for a designated payment period.

    CfDs have been put in place to provide security for the volatile price development of the green transition. Through CfDs, governments fund the price gap between market prices and actual costs for production. In the future, the price of carbon removal credits will likely also become more volatile. Putting CfDs in place can lower insecurity for investors, help to secure other funding options like debt funding, as well as create incentives for developers of CDR infrastructure projects.

    A third option for spurring demand in CDR would be dedicated public buying programs for carbon removal credits. In contrast to FiTs, such a procurement program would be more targeted at the VCM, functioning as a “trust signal” for potential buyers.

  • 2. Subsidies and Fiscal Incentives

    In addition to strengthening the demand side, governments also need to consider how to strengthen the supply side. Supporting infrastructure development can, for example, happen through direct subsidies or tax credits.

    The EU has the option to directly fund and subsidize CDR projects through its Innovation Fund. Financed through the current EU ETS scheme, the Innovation Fund has a total volume of 530 million ETS allowances (the de facto funding depends on the price of carbon). One prime example of the EU’s engagement in CDR is the BECCS Stockholm Exergi project. For now, the EU Innovation Fund is limited to selected technologies, but achieving net zero by 2050 will require a portfolio of permanent CDR pathways.

    Tax credits for carbon removal can also help to overcome the high initial capital costs of CDR projects. Tax credits can work ex-ante or ex-post. The US model (45Q) belongs to the latter: It provides a tax credit for each tonne of CO2 removed through the project developer (up to $180 per tonne). The Canadian Investment Tax Credit for Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (ICT CCUS) provides support before the actual carbon removal activity. With tax credit rates of up to 30% of CAPEX, the ICT shows how net zero infrastructure projects can be supported right from the start.

  • 3. Public Guarantees
  • A third option for EU member states is to use public credit guarantee schemes (PCGSs) to attract private investment. PCGSs can help to attract private funding by de-risking private capital and reducing the cost of capital for CDR technologies. Especially for hard-tech, high-CAPEX infrastructure, venture capital investment alone is not sufficient; larger debt funding is needed. Technical readiness, commercial offtake agreements, and forecasted cash flow should be taken into account as determining factors. For some CDR suppliers, PCGSs have already helped to secure debt funding for their projects. Setting up a European net zero infrastructure will need dedicated guarantee schemes that make them bankable and mitigate technical risks.

The European Green Deal needs to crowd private funding and unlock public funding

The journey towards climate neutrality has already started. We have identified the path to get there, but we still need to figure out how to accelerate and how to bridge the gap in our way: the net zero gap – both emission reduction targets and permanent carbon removal targets are at risk if we do not start building our net zero infrastructure now. Understanding carbon removal as a public good commands public actions enabling the infrastructure and technologies we need for this.

The European Union is a key player in global climate policy. The bloc has the capabilities and the responsibility to scale net zero technologies. Besides setting the regulatory framework for CDR, the Union also needs to further develop its toolkit for strategic investments and smart fiscal and economic policies to steer demand and crowd in private and public funding for net zero infrastructure.

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