David Cameron tours the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After years of inaction, the Tories need to go much further on carbon capture

Cameron has been squandering the UK’s lead in a technology with a large and growing global market.

This morning marked an important milestone on the road to the UK’s low-carbon future. In Peterhead, in the north east of Scotland, the government finally announced the funding for a detailed study to support Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) on a gas-fired power station. The idea behind Carbon Capture and Storage is simple; CO2 is plucked from the emissions of a fossil-fuel burning power station, liquefied and then buried underground. By the end of the decade, it is thought that the Peterhead CCS project will capture 10 million tonnes of CO2 a year and bury it 2km beneath the floor of the North Sea. It will be the first gas-fired CCS plant in the world.

Earlier this month, the TUC – in conjunction with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association – published a report examining the potential benefits to the UK of this technology. The results are stark: 30,000 construction jobs, the widespread decarbonisation of Britain’s industrial sector and £82 knocked off the cost of decarbonisation on consumer bills. After three years of inaction, there are now tentative and welcome signs that the government is taking the potential of CCS seriously. But there is a serious risk that the government will fail to provide the necessary support for the technology, with the result that the Peterhead project and its coal-fired cousin in Yorkshire become engineering curiosities, rather than pioneers of a new industry.

The basics of Carbon Capture and Storage are sufficiently easy to understand that they can often generate “too good to be true”-style responses. Carbon capture devices are installed in large-scale emitters such as power plants and industrial facilities. The captured carbon is then sent down a pipeline into deep subsurface rock formations, where it is permanently stored. CCS plants continue to burn fossil fuels, but with 90 per cent fewer emissions, and the technology can be fitted to existing infrastructure.

As ambitious as it sounds, it is not the technology that is holding back the development of CCS in the UK. The science and the engineering are largely proven – the first-full scale CCS plant is due to open in Canada later this year, with a capacity of 110 MW. Instead, the key brake on this technology in the UK has been stalling government policy. Under the last Labour government, Britain led the world in CCS. Seven out of the 13 projects up for European grant funding were British and it was understood that a handful of pioneer projects would pave the way for wide-scale roll out.

But within two years of the coalition coming to power, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers warned that Britain was becoming an “also ran”. Support for the first wave of pioneer projects was cut from four sites to two. The government failed to leverage funding from the EU and promises of £1bn of capital funding support disappeared as the Treasury took the money back once an earlier CCS project at Longannet in Fife was shelved by Scottish Power. CCS projects were left to wither on the vine. By contrast, Labour have continued to champion the technology since moving into opposition, with MPs such as Ian Lavery leading a vigorous campaign and shadow secretary of state Caroline Flint making clear that CCS has a vital role to play in our future energy mix.

The issue for the UK is that to decarbonise power supply and keep energy intensive industries here, CCS is a necessity, not an option. Decarbonising without CCS is likely to cost the UK 1 per cent of GDP and, as the TUC and industry study made clear, add about 15 per cent to the wholesale price of electricity. CCS also allows us to retain a role for fossil fuels, whose qualities complement other technologies and contribute to a balanced and varied energy mix.

In addition, CCS offers perhaps the only means of decarbonising large emitters in the industrial sector,  which is currently responsible for 10 per cent of all UK emissions. But in order to reach 10-20GW of CCS by 2030 we will need 15-25 installations. By contrast, an optimistic estimate would suggest that, under the current government’s policies, we have a grand total of two installations by 2020.

This is now the challenge for the government – to develop the next wave of CCS projects that will follow Peterhead and the White Rose project in Yorkshire. These should be the vanguard for a new industry, not a pair of engineering oddities. That is why getting the long-term energy support arrangements, known as contract for difference, appropriate to CCS as well as other low carbon sources (nuclear and renewable power) is so important.

So far there has been little sign that the government see any urgency in this pressing agenda. As ever, the penalty to moving slowly is that you fall behind. The global demand for CCS dwarfs our own, with the International Energy Agency forecasting 946GW of capacity by 2050. Establishing the UK as a European hub for CCS will dramatically increase the chances that this 946GW is built using UK expertise and supply chains. David Cameron is fond of talking about our participation in a global race, but seems less interested in actually running it.

By stalling on CCS over the last two years, the Tories have put our climate change targets, jobs and the affordability of our energy bills under pressure. Meanwhile, they are squandering the UK’s lead in a technology for which there is a large and growing global market. Today’s announcement highlights the potential benefits of CCS, but also makes plain just how much we stand to lose if the industrial potential is not properly nurtured. It is going to take much more than an announcement to coincide with a cabinet meeting in Aberdeen to maximise the UK's opportunities to fulfil our potential in CCS. It needs the government to take a sustained and real lead, or the risk is that CCS will remain the neglected element of our lower carbon future.

Tom Greatrex is shadow energy minister and Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.