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10 May 2024updated 17 May 2024 9:47am

The other side of net zero

If the UK is to reach its climate targets, delivering carbon removals is essential.

By Richard Gwilliam

The UK, and the world, are at a crossroads on climate. New records on global temperatures are being broken with alarming regularity. The Paris Agreement of 2015 which committed the world to limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels appears increasingly unattainable, and it’s clear that decisive and continual action from governments, the private sector and individuals will be required to minimise any overshoot and mitigate the worse impacts. Part of this seismic effort is further decarbonising our energy grid, one of the largest sources of emissions. As a country, we have made huge strides weaning ourselves off dependency on the dirtiest of fuels, coal, and transitioning to renewable power.

The government has set a 2035 target for a decarbonised grid, while Labour has planned an even more rapid transition for our energy sector. At Drax Power Station, we provide power for up to 4 million homes and businesses. For 50 years, we have played a critical role in delivering UK energy security and served as a source of high-skilled jobs in North Yorkshire. But we’re planning for the future, by converting two of our generating units to the carbon removals technology bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs).

This is not the first transition we have managed. Drax Power Station started life in 1974 as the UK’s largest coal fired power station reflecting the role of coal as the country’s primary source of energy and domestic heating at the time. Since then, we have converted from coal to sustainably sourced biomass. Because of the size of our site, and the sheer amount of energy we produce for the grid, that conversion was one of the principal reasons why the UK was able to start decarbonising its power system faster than any other European country. But to reach net zero and achieve interim targets, there’s more we can do.

The UK’s Climate Change Committee expects the country to still be generating at least 59 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year in 2050, which will need to be offset by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to hit net zero. We know there is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere and it’s no longer enough to just stop emitting it – we need to start removing what is already there.

When it comes to carbon removals we’ll need as many solutions as possible to tackle the climate crisis and the options fall into two broad categories: nature-based solutions, like trees and forests, which of course take carbon out of the atmosphere; or technological, or engineered solutions like Beccs and direct air capture (Dac).

With nature based solutions, carbon storage can often be short term and can be quickly reversed in the event of a forest fire or forest degradation, and Dac, which uses large scale infrastructure to effectively suck CO2 out of the air is energy intensive. This is because the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is around 0.04 per cent so a lot of air must be processed to deliver large removals.

Beccs takes the best of both of these options, combining them – using sustainably sourced materials from forests, which have absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere, and carbon capture technology to extract the absorbed CO2 and store it safely underground.

With Beccs at Drax Power Station we will capture CO2 which is a by-product of biomass combustion, transport it through a pipeline and store it permanently deep under the North Sea. The process creates a large carbon negative footprint essentially helping to redress the impacts humans have had on the carbon cycle by burning fossil fuels.

Critically, Beccs technology is scalable and can make a sizable contribution to the UK’s climate change targets. With this technology in place at Drax Power Station the site would become the world’s largest carbon removals project. Our Beccs plans already have planning consent, and this will allow the conversion to Beccs enabling us to capture eight million tonnes of carbon a year – equivalent to stopping all the departing flights from Heathrow.

Measures taking out that level of carbon would prove far more costly, and would require mass changes in consumer behaviour, or be logistically difficult, and more expensive. This includes removing a further 3 million cars from the roads or insisting that every household in the UK should have 1.5 meat and dairy free days per week. Analysis by the consultancy Baringa shows that delivering our Beccs project in North Yorkshire would save £15bn in whole economy costs by 2050 when compared with the costs of reducing emissions by these other, more complex, means.

Beccs is a process and a technology that requires long-term, stable support to reach its full potential. The UK government has an initial ambition of achieving 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas removals by 2030 growing to 23 million tonnes by 2035. These targets, enshrined in the UK’s 5th and 6th carbon budgets will be immensely difficult to achieve if this project does not proceed.

We sit near the Humber, the UK’s most carbon intensive industrial cluster, which emits more CO2 than any other area of the country. The region is home to a range of very productive, highly skilled and well paid, secure jobs in key sectors, not least at Drax, which itself contributes over £350m a year to regional GDP and 2,580 jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber. But transforming these sites, preparing them for a decarbonised future, is essential to reaching our net zero goals.

As well as finding ourselves at a crossroads in the fight against climate change, there is another sense in which this country faces crucial and historic decisions in the months and years ahead. The pandemic, war in Ukraine, and instability in the Middle East have highlighted the need for action on energy security. The UK must not be left behind as global and national economies reorder themselves around net zero. Carbon removals can be at the centre of a new model that sets us up for the next, greener century, and even beyond that.

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Sustainability, published on 10 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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