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New Year, New Clean Air Task Force

March 8, 2021

At a global level, the climate crisis is at once devilishly complex and requires urgent action. Policymakers, advocacy organizations, companies and activists must find ways to cooperate and thread the needle of taking steps today that will lay the foundations for meeting all of our energy needs cleanly over the next decade, as well as through 2050 and beyond. It is a monumental challenge.

It is important to reaffirm that every now and then, as discussions of climate policy can become inscrutable, technical and detailed, or give way to careful calculations about the cost and impact of our decisions. There can be no equivocation about the magnitude of the task at hand, nor the long-term repercussions of policy decisions we make in the next 10 years.

As Clean Air Task Force (CATF) enters its 25th year, we are scaling our scope and ambition in line with the challenge we are all facing.

With the European Green Deal, Europe has become the proving ground for climate and energy policy, advancing efforts that will drive towards net-zero emissions by mid-century. The EU and its member states are developing policies for some of the most vital cogs of a thriving net-zero energy system: hydrogen policy, methane abatement, industrial decarbonization, emissions trading, imports, shipping decarbonization, agriculture policy, carbon-capture and much more. The decisions made on these will become a systems-change blueprint for countries around the world, as the EU revises all its policies to be in line with its climate ambitions – it is an unprecedented policy agenda.

Any organization seeking to combat climate change through innovative policy and technology development must now be involved at the European level. That is why CATF is so excited to announce the launch of our European operations.

We already have eight staff members working on EU issues. During 2021, we plan to bring on four additional experts in engineering, markets, and policy.

For much of our history our work has focused on the US. But as our understanding of climate and energy systems has developed, we have slowly expanded our work to other countries including China, India, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Nigeria, among others. Now, Brussels has become a key point of focus.

The EU offers us a new opportunity to engage on multiple policy issues, consistently and over the long term. Over the coming year our European staff will engage in efforts to dramatically cut methane emissions from oil and gas, scale-up industrial decarbonization and carbon removal technologies, and the creation of policies to drive the development of hydrogen.

Advocating for better climate policy in both the US and the EU means that CATF is directly engaging with the policymakers that have oversight over 40% of global energy consumption. We have to solve that 40% first and fastest. Industrial nations in Europe and North America have relied on burning fossil fuels for longer than anywhere else on Earth; therefore these are the nations that need to lead the way on our transition to a zero-carbon future. With 75% of emissions reductions by mid-century expected to come from technologies not yet mature, the new transatlantic partnership must ensure the commercialization of advanced decarbonization technologies so they are available for the rest of the world to use.

Frans Timmermans
Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President, European Commission

Understanding the Climate Challenge

The European Green Deal is an agenda that cuts across Commission DGs and Parliamentary working groups as well as across governmental departments and geographical borders. It has implications for the day-to-day lives of European citizens and the long-term strategies of private companies alike. The elevation of climate change to such an all-encompassing issue is necessary, but it has led to new challenges.

The European Union comprises 27 member states with hugely varied energy mixes. The deployment of off-shore wind as a new source of clean energy can be incredibly successful for some – like Denmark and Belgium – but inaccessible for others, like Austria. Electrification is very likely to have a powerful impact on individuals and their cars and household emissions, but will not address the difficulties of transitioning to clean energy sources for Europe’s manufacturers, shipping, heavy ground transport, or aircraft. And Europe doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is currently the world’s largest importer of oil and gas, so any attempt to address the EU’s climate policy necessarily involves a deep examination of the global fuels market and the intrinsically international value-chains connected to it. In addition to technical complexity, we must also account the different political and economic structures in the bloc’s 27 countries – a just transition would ensure the efficient but decarbonized use of local resources and preservation of jobs in productive industries.

The closer you look, the more complex the process of ‘solving’ climate change in the EU becomes.

For the European Green Deal to succeed, it is vital that everybody involved approaches this path-breaking moment for climate policy with a common understanding that there will be no cure-all solution. No silver bullet. No before-and-after moment of clarity. Even if there is one out there waiting to be discovered, right now the science doesn’t show us what it is – so our best bet is to keep all the viable options on the table.

Tactically, our efforts must go to a pragmatic appraisal of these options in order to find the best fit for each country and each sector. CATF has adopted this approach to problem solving over the past 25 years and believe this approach is necessary for Europe and the world to address our climate crisis.

CATF: 25 Years of Climate Advocacy

In 1996, a small group of environmental advocates, engineers, lawyers, and scientists sat down around a coffee table in Boston to conceive of a new kind of environmental organization: one that doggedly followed environmental science, was grounded in technology, engineering and market realities and utilized every legal, policy and business tool conceivable to tackle environmental and energy problems.

Our very first campaign was to publicize evidence of the impact of power plant pollution to public health and ecosystems and push for regulations. By 2010, we had secured policies that will cut US coal power by two thirds by 2025 and reduce emissions from the remaining coal fleet by 70-90%. This effort has also led to a 96% reduction in air toxics like mercury, arsenic, and other metals, acid gases and organics, and the avoidance of more than 30,000 premature deaths and up to 500,000 illnesses and hospital visits per year. We followed up this success with a 50-state campaign to reduce emissions from diesel engines, helping catalyze an international campaign to reduce marine ship particulate emissions by 50%.

CATF work session
CATF working session

In the early 2000’s, emerging climate research began to show that we needed to fully eliminate carbon and methane emissions by midcentury to avert the worst impacts of global warming.

Our energy systems research led CATF to the conclusion, that conventional energy solutions alone would not decarbonize global power grids affordably or in time, much less reliably eliminate carbon emissions from transportation, cement, steel, and heating. This led CATF to begin intensive work with technology experts, energy companies, and policy thinkers to figure out how to commercialize complementary options that would give us the best chance of meeting the energy and climate challenges we face.

CATF’s commitment to following the science has sometimes led us to diverge from the mainstream climate conversation – at least at first. In 2006, we commissioned some of the first criticisms of EU and US biofuel policy, noting their negative impact on land us and deforestation. After an initial backlash, we helped turn the international NGO community to take a more nuanced view on biofuels, scrutinizing which types of biofuels can be useful in specific context.

As with so many areas of climate policy, the details are what counts.

Our Priorities in the EU

CATF is putting its efforts into climate policy areas that could have a huge impact on EU emissions, but don’t yet have fully realized pathways for mitigation. Our agenda is built around three pillars:

  1. Curbing methane emissions
  2. Encouraging the transition to zero-carbon fuels
  3. Promoting investment into carbon capture, removal, and storage technologies

Methane accounts for a quarter of today’s warming, and levels in the atmosphere are surging. With more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of CO2 in the short-term, reducing methane is critical to slowing climate change. Fortunately, low-cost technologies and practices exist to slash emissions. The EU (plus Norway and Great Britain) represents the world’s 7th highest oil and gas methane polluter, and is also the world’s largest importer of natural gas and one of the top importers of oil. Through carefully constructed methane policies, Europe could cut its domestic methane footprint and also issue standards with incentives and verification approaches for imported gas to reduce emissions from key suppliers— Russia, Norway, Algeria, Qatar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and others.

With leadership from the European Commission and the new Administration in the U.S., CATF sees an opportunity to help governments around the world converge around the urgent need to address methane emissions.

Globally, about 80% of all final energy consumption comes via fuels – petrol in your car, diesel for trucks, natural gas for heating in your house and so on. In the EU the figure is closer to 70%. Our massive reliance on burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the single largest slice of the climate challenge.

In the coming years, the EU is pushing to convert a lot of that consumption into electricity generated by renewables. This will make a big difference for our everyday energy consumption, but for many industrial purposes, electrification is not a viable alternative to today’s fuels. For example, heavy duty trucks and transport ships are unlikely to switch to electricity because the batteries needed to power them would take up too much cargo space to be profitable. For these – as well as for energy-intensive manufacturing processes – replacement fuels are required that do not emit carbon when consumed. These industries are major emitters but also major employers across Europe, providing services and products that are exported all over the world and widely consumed within the EU. Unless they are provided feasible routes to switch from fossil fuels, their economic clout will create costly delays on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Carbon capture, removal, and storage technologies deliver substantive emissions reductions in the most ambitious energy transition models. Carbon capture, removal, and storage has short and long term implications for the EU. First, in easing the energy transition for hard-to-abate and energy-intensive sectors; second, helping developed economies ease the transition for the rest of the world via carbon removal techniques that will be integral to any ambitions to achieve negative emissions. As such, carbon capture removal and storage are integral parts of the most ambitious energy transition models.

Despite all this, carbon capture technologies remain neglected and underutilized. Right now, there is not a single at scale carbon capture removal and storage facility operating in the EU – though there are two in Norway – albeit, fortunately, several are in planning.

Norway and the Netherlands are leading the way, investing in CO2 storage infrastructure to provide cross-border decarbonization benefits. The broader policy framework is evolving with the Innovation Fund spurring a proliferation of potential projects across industries and the bloc’s largest emitters, and national mechanisms such as the Netherlands’ SDE ++ complementing these efforts. More must be done to funnel investment and incentivize the adoption of carbon capture, removal, and storage, and drive down the cost. CATF is ready to work with the European Commission, national governments, companies, nonprofits and heavy industry to create policy pathways to commercializing carbon capture, removal, and storage technologies in Europe.

A new era for climate policy

CATF has developed an approach to climate advocacy that has proved successful time and again. Our ruthless focus on decarbonization as the bottom-line for all of our thinking means that, not only are our energies put towards the policy fights that can truly move the needle of global emissions, but we always start with the root causes of the climate crisis and work towards a solution from there.

Changing our energy system requires a lot of options because we don’t really know how the puzzle pieces will fit together in the future – which is why changing a global system riddled with inertia is so difficult. Systematic change demands policies that reflects both the detail of each individual part of the energy system and the macro picture of how it all fits together.

The scale of the climate crisis makes systematic change our only option, the real question is how comprehensive that change can be. Happily, the massive scope of the European Green Deal allows us to tackle that question. It is now up to the climate advocacy community to get its hands dirty and dive into all the optionality that the moment demands.

To manage our planet’s climate, we must effectively eliminate greenhouse emissions. Climate models suggest that we have, at most, three decades to do so— about the same number of years since CATF’s founding. That’s not impossible. But it will take everything we’ve got today, and more. CATF is ready and willing to muck in.

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