Environment groups question UK’s carbon capture push


Carbon capture and storage is a costly “distraction” that cannot be relied on to help meet climate targets, according to research published by two prominent environment groups that questions one of the key “green” technologies backed by Boris Johnson.

The UK prime minister has committed £1bn of public funds to help develop four CCS schemes in Britain by 2030 as part of his plan for a “green industrial revolution” and to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Mr Johnson hopes the UK can become a “world leader” in the technology, which involves capturing carbon dioxide from sources such as power stations and industry, and storing it in facilities including saline aquifers or depleted oilfields.

The government said CCS would create thousands of jobs and “ensure we can build back greener, cut carbon emissions, maintain security of supply and keep energy costs low for consumers”.

But campaigners at Global Witness and Friends of the Earth Scotland said a reliance on CCS, in particular to decarbonise the energy system, was “not a solution” to global warming.

They published a paper on Monday from the Tyndall Manchester climate change research centre that they said proves CCS has a “history of over-promising and under-delivering”. 

CCS was first developed in Norway in 1996 but there are only 26 commercial projects in operation globally, none of which are in the UK or EU. To date most carbon capture has been used to extract difficult-to-reach oil.

Schemes under development in the UK include using CCS to reduce emissions from a gas plant and other industry in England’s Humber region and to produce low carbon hydrogen from natural gas in Scotland. However, project backers, which include oil and gas majors such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Norway’s Equinor, are still in discussions with the government over financing models.

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Global Witness and Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that CCS still faced “many barriers”, including costs. “We cannot expect [it] to make a meaningful contribution to 2030 climate targets,” they said, adding that “the cumulative emissions from each year between now and 2030” will determine whether the Paris climate goal to limit warming to well below 2C below pre-industrial levels can be met.

Even if such barriers were overcome, CCS would “only start to deliver too late” and would have to be “deployed on a massive scale at a scarcely credible rate”, the groups said in their study.

They are instead pressing governments to prioritise building more renewable energy generation and tackling the energy efficiency of buildings.

“These would produce larger and more rapid carbon reductions in this decade, create vital jobs and help tackle fuel poverty,” they said. 

CCS has a chequered history in the UK, after previous governments cancelled subsidy schemes to develop projects. However, more recent Conservative governments have renewed the push for the technology.

Global Witness and Friends of the Earth also highlighted that current CCS projects were not zero carbon, but captured about 90 per cent of emissions at peak capacity. Supporters of the technology say this is largely based on economic rather than technical issues.

Luke Warren, chief executive of the CCS Association, a trade body, said all “credible analysis” showed the technology will play a “really critical role” in cutting emissions to net zero by the middle of the century.

A government spokesperson said CCS and renewables “are not mutually exclusive, but work hand-in-hand. Indeed, the independent Committee on Climate Change described [CCS] as ‘a necessity, not an option’.”

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