Interesting things are happening deep below the seabed in Northern Europe. Preparations are being made for carbon dioxide to make a journey into the earth, first captured from the atmosphere or industrial sources, then shipped across the North Sea and injected into geological formations. There it will stay, prevented from entering the atmosphere in a technology that is decades-old, but is finally gaining widespread recognition.
It is a time of increasing attention and investment in the field of carbon management. New carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects are getting the green light across Europe, with governments realizing that the technologies offer an encouraging avenue for meeting European Union (EU) climate targets.
Both carbon removal and carbon reduction via CCS are set to play an important role in the future, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizing that removing carbon from the atmosphere is essential if the world is to meet its climate goals.
But building the infrastructure is only one part of the challenge. Building trust in the technologies and creating a thriving and affordable market are just as crucial if carbon management is to become a cost-effective and viable component in the fight to keep the earth from catastrophic global warming.
“For the first time, we have such a major pipeline of carbon management projects that are being developed, so now is the moment to create the conditions for these projects to actually come alive,” says Eve Tamme, founder of climate policy advisory group Climate Principles.
Microsoft is taking a leading role in carbon removal, investing in a number of large-scale projects as part of its work to be carbon negative by 2030 and to remove the equivalent of all its cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“We’re investing in carbon removal because we think it’s an essential market to emerge, not just to meet our goals, but for the world to meet its goals,” says Brian Marrs, Microsoft’s Senior Director for Energy & Carbon Removal.
Microsoft has invested in carbon removal projects around the globe, and plans for a portfolio of more than five million metric tonnes of carbon removal per year in 2030.
At the same time, it is pioneering research into how artificial intelligence (AI) can play a supporting role in ensuring carbon management technologies are safe, accessible, and verifiable.
But while the most up-to-date research is helping streamline processes, some of the underlying technology is decades old. Methodologies to capture carbon have been around since the 1930s, while transportation of carbon was pioneered in the 1970s.
Many years of research and innovation have led to the two key techniques deployed today. In Direct Air Capture, a carbon removal technology, CO2 existing in the atmosphere from an unknown source is captured and stored. The other main deployment is at the source of emissions, directly capturing carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. For example, as gases rise out of a chimney at a factory, the fumes are brought into contact with a chemical that binds to the CO2, converts it into a liquid-like substance, and prevents it from entering the atmosphere.
After capture, carbon dioxide then must be transported and stored in locations such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs and underground rock formations known as saline aquifers.
Finding these storage locations is key, given that the IPCC says that 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide will need to be removed each year by 2050 if the world is to meet the goal of keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees.
“When you look at the IPCC and the broader reports on getting to the 1.5-degree target, carbon removal is an essential piece, not just because we’re not reducing fast enough, but because the carbon already in the atmosphere today would need to be removed to make that math work,” says Marrs.
Current annual CO2 storage capacity is around 45 megatons, a tiny proportion of what is needed. But there are signs of a scale-up. Global projects currently in the planning stages are set to increase storage to 250 megatons a year in the coming decade, while the European Union has proposed setting a target of storing 50 megatons of carbon dioxide a year by 2030.
One study by the Clean Air Task Force estimated that there was the capacity in Europe to build storage for up to 1,520 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Large-scale European projects that got the go-ahead this year include the Porthos project in the Netherlands, which aims to be operational by 2026 and store 2.5 megatons a year. The British government recently committed £20 billion pounds to two CCS projects as part of its plan to capture and store up to 30 megatons of CO2 each year by 2030.
They follow some of the most ambitious global projects already underway in Northern Europe. In May, Microsoft announced an agreement to purchase 2.67 megatons of carbon removal over 11 years, capturing biogenic carbon from sustainable biomass by the Danish energy provider Ørsted – one of the largest deals in the field of carbon removal to date. Because the carbon captured at the Ørsted heat and power plant is from bioenergy (in a process known as bioenergy carbon capture and storage, or BECCS), it’s considered a carbon negative technology, as plants absorb CO2 as they grow. This makes it an ideal project for investment in high durability carbon removal, meaning solutions that sequester carbon for thousands of years.
“We are looking for three guiding North Stars behind forming this new carbon removal market,” says Marrs.
“Firstly, additionality: We want every dollar to equal impact. Then permanence, so we’re going to make sure what we’ve taken out of the atmosphere will stay out of the atmosphere. And measurability: how are we monitoring and proving how we have achieved our targets?”
Microsoft also supports Northern Lights, a partnership in Norway between Equinor, Shell and TotalEnergies, which is developing the infrastructure to offer a full transport and storage service. They will pick up carbon captured at source or removed from the atmosphere, transport it to a processing facility, then inject it 2,600 meters under the seabed.
In one of its flagship projects, Northern Lights will store 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year from a cement factory at Brevik. Northern Lights will also provide the transport and storage infrastructure for the Ørsted project.
Microsoft has been working with Northern Lights since 2020 to help develop its infrastructure, including an integrated digital platform that tracks carbon dioxide from the point of emission to its eventual storage.
“We have collaborated and co-innovated to establish a data platform and ecosystem that would drive efficiencies across the CCS value chain and in particular for the integration of the business of Northern Lights,” says Erik Skjetne, Northern Lights’ Chief Digital Officer.
“We develop a complex operation, from customer to reservoir. Through the work with Microsoft, we believe that we can realize automation, speed-up, and added value creation.”
Whether hard-to-abate carbon is captured from industry, compensated with removals via direct air capture, or comes from another type of carbon negative technology such as BECCS, tracking the journey it makes from source to storage is key in building trust and ensuring the technology has the impact it promises.
To assist in this process, Microsoft is working with partners including Stanford University, Imperial College, and chip maker Nvidia to develop Artificial Intelligence tools.
Philipp Witte, a senior researcher at Microsoft, says AI can help in all the crucial stages of the carbon management process, from assessing the necessary chemical components at the point of capture to identifying locations to inject and store CO2.
Traditionally, assessing potential storage locations involved manual numerical simulations of seismic data, and it was a time-consuming process.
“AI is very helpful because it can accelerate some of these processes,” says Witte. “Now I can do a simulation in a fraction of a second and I can run many more scenarios to figure out the optimal drilling location to get the most capacity out of my storage site.”
Assessing potential leakage sites is also important in monitoring what happens once the carbon is underground.
“We’re able to do that quite precisely with technology,” says Witte. “So being able to quantify these things helps both from the technical side and from the public side in building trust in the technology.”
Microsoft is currently working on AI projects including KarbonVision, which automatically maps geological faults from seismic data, and a collaboration with chipmaker Nvidia on assessing injection sites. The Northern Lights project is working with Microsoft to explore how AI can help identify future injection sites.
But Witte stresses that AI is just one piece of the puzzle: “AI can definitely be an enabler and it can make things more cost effective, but eventually it’s more of a policy decision.”
For Microsoft, the establishment of reliable policies with high-quality and enforceable standards is key to ensuring that the future of carbon markets is robust and impactful. While costs for high durability carbon removal have been prohibitive in the past, investing in scale in long-term projects is key to fostering innovation and increasing accessibility.
“It’s very clear from the IPCC and other scenarios that you need to start doing carbon removal today in order to have a mature market when you will need it most, so that’s one of the reasons why Microsoft is trying to shape the market now,” says Adina Braha-Honciuc, who leads Microsoft’s Carbon Policy in Europe.
And there are promising signs that Europe is ready to implement the policies to help get the market moving.
As well as proposing the 50 megatons storage target as part of its Net Zero Industry Act, the European Commission has also put forward proposals for a Carbon Removal Certification Framework. This framework will establish high quality standards for the certification of carbon removal in Europe, helping the removals and storage market advance at the necessary pace. An Industrial Carbon Management Strategy is also forthcoming at EU level, aiming to set concrete targets for the carbon storage infrastructure and establishing a formal role for carbon management technologies in achieving EU climate targets.
Stakeholder discussions for the EU’s climate targets for 2040 have started, which will pave the way for the bloc to achieve its overall goal to be climate neutral by 2050. The European Commission’s proposal is expected in spring next year.
CCS and other carbon management technologies remain a topic of debate, with some environmental groups arguing that it gives carbon intensive industries a free pass to carry on polluting. While reducing emissions needs to remain a priority, there is an emerging sense in Europe that removals must play a role if the world is to meet its climate goals. Ensuring that the EU’s 2040 targets set a clear distinction between carbon reduction and removals, and separate targets for each, is another way to ensure that the onus remains on dramatically reducing emissions, and at the same time investing in the necessary high-quality removals.
“We need to prioritize reducing emissions because if we don’t reduce emissions, we have no chance of getting to net zero,” says Tamme. “So really fast and sharper emission reductions are the priority. But we also need to start scaling up removals right now so that we have them available by the time we need them in larger quantities.
“We need to end up with a policy mix that has the right finance tools and market tools.”
And if all the policy elements as well as public and private sector players come together, there is the potential for Europe to be a global leader in catalyzing carbon management technologies.
“Europe has shown us that with the right policy environment and the right corporate engagement, you can grow clean energy substantially, and I think that that playbook can work for carbon removal in the long term, too,” says Marrs.