Greenhouse-gas neutral Europe and the role of geology

In November 2018, the European Commission presented its communication titled ”A Clean Planet for all: A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy”. The document did not attract much attention by the media, not speaking about the public, even though it most probably represents a start of a process that will result in unprecedented changes in the lives of all Europeans – not only ourselves but also our children and grandchildren.

The communication is de facto a vision that should lead to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU by 2050. It is not a binding document but – as many Commission communications in the past – it can be taken as the first step towards a new (or updated) EU policy that will not only trigger discussions in the European Parliament (to be newly elected soon), the European Council and the Member States, but also (quite probably) form the base for new concrete measures including GHG emission reduction targets, legislation and, of course, various supporting mechanisms.

We should realize that to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is a gigantic challenge. It will mean to literally eliminate emissions of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases not only in power production and energy-intensive industries (where this process already started), but also in the sectors of transport, buildings and households (including heating & cooling), agriculture, etc. (see Fig. 1). And those emissions that cannot be eliminated (because it is impossible or very difficult to achieve) must be balanced by technologies that are able to decrease the content of greenhouse gases (especially CO2) in the atmosphere, called CRT (Carbon Removal technologies) or NETs (Negative Emission Technologies).

Fig. 1: Trajectory of GHG emissions to achieve greenhouse-gas neutral Europe in 2050 (Source: A Clean Planet for all: A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy – COM(2018) 773, Brussels, 28.11.2018)


What can this all mean for the future of geology and geoenergy-related research? Most probably we can expect continuation and deepening of the recent trends when geology is supporting technologies that contribute to reduction of GHG emissions, both directly and indirectly. Let us try to create an indicative list of examples:

  • Resources of raw materials, including metals and even rare metals, will be needed to support technologies that are necessary for the transition to zero-emission economy like batteries, solar panels, wind turbines or various appliances for energy saving, smart grids and demand-side management.
  • Increased role of renewable energy resources will hopefully also include expansion of utilisation of geothermal energy in all its forms.
  • Subsurface energy storage is expected to gain importance because the need to balance energy supply and demand will increase with the growing share of intermittent renewables and expected seasonal fluctuations.
  • Geological CO2 storage sites will be needed for another technology that is claimed to be necessary – CCS (CO2 capture and storage). Emissions from industrial processes like iron, steel, cement, hydrogen and chemicals production, as well as those from the remaining fossil-fuel based energy plants, will need handling. And, moreover, in combination with biomass combustion, biofuel production or even the direct-air CO2 capture it represents one of the most important CRTs/NETs that can compensate for remaining GHG emissions, e.g. from agriculture or households.
  • Nuclear energy will have to be part of the solution, too, at least in some countries. This means that we will need safe radioactive waste disposal sites in suitable geological structures.

A look at the list above (which is by far not exhaustive) clearly indicates the vital role of proper subsurface management, not only to solve possible conflicts of interest stemming from the fact that various geological structures can be used for various purposes. Here, by the way, our GeoConnect³D project and its WP5 can deliver its contribution.

What about fossil fuels? Their role will diminish – there is no doubt about this and the only questions are how quickly this will happen and to what extent. If no CO2 emissions are allowed (which is obvious for a zero-emission economy), there is not too much space for utilisation of oil, gas or coal. All carbon that is released in these processes will need to be captured and permanently stored, so that it does not enter the atmosphere. One can imagine some products made of oil that can meet this criterion, like some sorts of plastics, as well as limited combustion of natural gas (or maybe even coal) in power plants equipped with CCS serving to balance the grid in times when renewables do not deliver. A promising concept might also be the “blue hydrogen” – hydrogen produced from natural gas by steam methane reforming accompanied by CCS. This technology would be able to significantly support development of the hydrogen economy that could help solving the problem of decarbonisation in some branches of industry, heating or heavy transport. In any case, however, one can hardly expect that fossil fuels exploration will remain among the most important geological disciplines, at least in Europe.

Can we – as geologists – draw any conclusions from the above? I think we can. We should carefully follow the societal trends and developments, including those related to energy and climate change policies. We should be able to react to the newly emerging needs, become more flexible and, in many cases, overcome our traditional way of thinking. What’s more, we should even come with new ideas and suggestions that will incorporate the use of the subsurface into the solutions. International cooperation – one of the main pillars of GeoERA – is one of the vehicles that can help us to come up to these expectations.

Vit Hladik
CGS – Czech Geological Survey


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