LONDON The European Union's ambition to lead the fight against climate change faces a setback as its target of rolling out full-scale carbon capture and storage plants by 2015 is increasingly seen by experts as unrealistic.
The EU may not have any low-carbon coal plants built by 2015, under a target to trial "up to 12" commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants by then, as governments turn off the finance taps in response to global recession.
As G20 leaders meet in Pittsburgh this week to discuss moves to combat global warming, the EU is under pressure to keep up the momentum of its ambitious climate goals.
"The likelihood of the EU reaching its target is vanishingly small. If they achieved five (plants) by 2015 and 10 by 2020 it would probably be a minor miracle," David Reiner at Cambridge University's Judge Business School told Reuters.
A spokesman for the EU Commission was more upbeat.
"In our view, we can be rather confident that it is feasible ... if the current momentum is kept and if member states and European industry commit the necessary resources in line with their various public statements to date," he told Reuters.
CCS captures CO2 from the exhaust gases of power plants and stores it underground. It is considered vital because high-carbon coal is the world's cheapest source of energy, but also the biggest single contributor to climate change.
E.ON AG said this month that fitting CCS to a new coal plant in southern England, expected by 2016, depended on winning a UK competition for funding, and full operation of the CCS unit would be "some time" after that.
It is not only Europe that is dragging its heels -- no commercial-scale plant is being built yet anywhere worldwide.
A plant will take about four years to build, after a permitting process which will likely take several years, energy executives said.
"We will not have (any) CCS plants operating in the EU in 2015," said an adviser to the EU Commission under condition of anonymity.
The plants will cost about $1 billion more to build than a normal coal plant, but no incentives are yet in place.
One EU plan is for CCS operators to be awarded about 4 billion euros ($5.89 billion) in grants from sales of pollution rights to industry, under the third trading phase of the EU emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) from 2013-2020.
But the EU has its hands full on that front as well as several member states are wrangling over carbon emissions quotas, after a ruling on Wednesday against the EU Commission called its authority into question, further knocking its credibility in the fight against climate change.
The bloc may also allocate 1.2 billion euros in CCS funds under its "green" economic recovery spending.
"Incentives linked to the emissions trading scheme will only materialize in phase three (of the EU ETS), from 2013 onwards. If you add construction time, say 4 years, you could realistically be in operation by 2017," the EU adviser added.
"Projects will be built marginally faster elsewhere in the world than in Europe," said Jesse Scott at climate think-tank E3G in Brussels.
The U.S. FutureGen's 275 megawatt coal-fired plant with CCS in Illinois, and Hydrogen Energy's 390 MW project in California are tipped to be ready by 2015, analysts said.
Europe's best bet is Vattenfall's 385 MW unit at its Jaenschwalde power plant in Germany, planned for 2015.
The British government has promised support for up to four 300-400 megawatt schemes, with the first operational by 2014, but the winner of the competition has not yet been announced.
"If the (EU) goal is to be met or even approached, several other states will have to step up," said Mark Taylor, lead CCS analyst at New Energy Finance.
More support from the 27-nation bloc's member states, along with private money, is essential to kick-start as many different technologies and in as many environments as possible.
"Unless the UK really delivers on its commitment to four CCS plants and Germany and the Netherlands both deliver more than one demo plant it is difficult to get the math to work out," Cambridge University's Reiner said.
(Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Keiron Henderson)