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Will carbon capture help us reach net zero?

The technology should not be used to justify more oil extraction in the North Sea, but experts agree it has a role in a green economy.

By Nick Ferris

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers a seemingly miraculous solution to the climate crisis. Against a backdrop of global CO2 levels continuing to rise year-on-year, CCS allows us to capture that CO2 at the source of emission, liquefy it, and pump it into underground geological formations.

The UK government has come out as a major champion of the technology. On its so-called “Green Day” of net zero policy announcements in March, up to £20bn was promised in support of CCS, and eight CCS projects were selected for state support. This week the government announced that projects in the Humber and Aberdeenshire have been chosen as the next CCS initiatives to be developed in the UK, alongside the expansion of oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, in the name of Britain’s energy security.

CCS will allow the UK to “maintain our world-leading action to reach net zero” Rishi Sunak said earlier this year. Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, has described CCS as a “massive opportunity” that might eventually contribute trillions to the UK economy.

But is CCS too good to be true? A lot of green campaign and research groups think so. Critics say that £20bn is a huge amount of money to be promised to a technology that remains untested at a commercial scale in the UK. It is also technically complicated for the technology to capture emissions at a sufficient rate for the process to qualify as “low carbon”; the government's target to increase the volume of UK carbon captured from zero to 20-30 megatons of CO2 a year by 2030 is hugely ambitious. The current rate of carbon captured globally from the world’s 35 commercial CCS facilities is only marginally higher than the UK target, at 45 Mt of CO2 a year.

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[See also: Abandoning net zero would be a historic mistake]

At present 73 per cent of the world’s commercial carbon capture and utilisation capacity is installed at oil and gas fields in order to pump carbon into wells and flush out as much fossil fuel as possible, according to the Global CCS Institute. This, critics point out, is a process that ultimately increases emissions released into the atmosphere, as it allows for more fossil fuel to be extracted and burnt. The fact that most carbon capture technology is used in the oil industry points to another fundamental difficulty with developing CCS: it remains very expensive. The process has so far only been developed where it has made business sense, such as in the enhanced production of oil. The capture of CO2 for the purposes of reducing carbon emissions has not been a money-maker.

Much of the lobbying for CCS has been led by the fossil fuel industry. “CCS is a Trojan horse pushed by the fossil industry to continue business as usual," Mike Childs, policy director at Friends of the Earth, told Spotlight. There should, he suggests, be significant scepticism when CCS funding is announced alongside a renewed commitment to “maximise the vital production of UK oil and gas”, as the government said in March, or to “decarbonise oil and gas”.

Despite these issues, however, it is likely that CCS will be required in some capacity if the UK is to reach net zero. “We have built pathways that rely on very limited amounts of carbon capture and storage and greenhouse gas removals, but it's very difficult to have absolutely none at all,” said Dustin Benton, policy director at the Green Alliance think tank.

“We would argue it is pretty much impossible to reach net zero without CCS,” agreed Nilay Shah, head of chemical engineering at Imperial College London. And the UK should be well placed to make the technology work. “The capture process is very similar to other processes already operated in the UK like gas sweetening and ammonia production,” said Shah. “Transportation technology will be new in the UK, but it is already done in other parts of the world, and we have a good understanding of storage sites in the continental shelf from UK oil and gas.”

Chris Littlecott, associate director of the climate change think tank E3G, believes that CCS is “difficult and expensive” and there should definitely be “a healthy degree of scepticism around big government commitments”. However, “ultimately it is important to support the technology so that it remains an option on the table for companies who are starting to make decisions about their next investments and decarbonisation pathways”. Littlecott adds that other European countries including Denmark and Norway have CCS strategies of similar ambition to that of the UK. 

Josh Burke, senior policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, at the London School of Economics, also believes that there should be significant “levelling up opportunity” from CCS in the north of England, which is part of the government's argument for the technology. “But the case for CCS should not be used to justify the further extraction of fossil fuel reserves in the North Sea,” he said. This week the government said it would grant more than a hundred new oil and gas licenses to "boost British energy independence".

For CCS to be implemented in a way that makes commercial sense in the UK, several factors will be crucial. First, there needs to be “the correct combination of regulation and the financial incentives to drive investment in the technology towards good performance”, said Littlecott. Establishing big industrial clusters will make good practical sense, but beyond the £20bn investment already committed by the government, there will need to be a clear “economic driver” for CCS to make long-term commercial sense.

Raising the price of emitting carbon on the UK Emissions Trading Scheme could be a means of achieving this economic driver, suggested Benton, “so that if you have installed CCS but are not hitting a very high capture rate, you will have to pay a penalty for the carbon that you emit”.

Second, it needs to be clear that CCS is always going to be an additional output on top of the cost of the emitting process to which it is attached, unlike renewables like solar and wind, which are cheap and low carbon in themselves. And CCS will probably never be competitive in a large number of sectors, including road transportation (where electric vehicles reign supreme), heating (compared with the benefits of electric heat pumps), the vast majority of power generation (where solar and wind can be used), and also in hydrogen production, where green hydrogen produced from renewables is likely to be cheaper. Where CCS will “definitely make sense” is in carbon-intensive industrial sectors where emissions are hard to abate, such as cement, glass or petrochemicals production, said Shah.

CCS cannot be championed at the expense of other green measures, either. According to the carbon budget delivery plan – also announced in March – within the next 15 years the UK will need to start generating 99 per cent of its electricity from low-carbon sources, up to a third of homes will be heated with electric heat pumps, and half of UK cars will be electric if we are to meet net-zero targets. These transformative changes will require ambitious policy, significant financing and tight regulation – a major challenge that the government has so far failed to meet.

[See also: Rishi Sunak's anti-green turn won't save him]

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