Tom Baxter’s opinion piece on carbon capture and storage (CCS) (read here) muddles the issues rather than clarifying the challenge.
We could argue about conflating UK power demand with Scottish electricity production. Or that household electricity consumption accounts for only 36% of total electricity consumption (and only 6% of total final energy consumption) in the UK. Or that the electricity used for boiling kettles only accounts for 0.34% of the UK’s final energy consumption.
However, here is the real challenge. It is clear that, year after year, the world burns more fossil fuels. The Carbon Tracker project reported at the COP23 climate talks this week that emissions have increased yet again; in spite of the good intentions of the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions, and in spite of the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather.
The challenge is to reduce carbon emissions to zero – zilch – by mid-century. That cannot be done by focusing just on electricity, or simply by reducing demand. We need holistic, connected actions across the whole energy system.
“Carbon capture or kettle smart” is a false dichotomy: in Scotland, particularly, domestic electricity generation has been almost entirely decarbonised. The closure of our legacy of coal and gas-fuelled power plant means the pursuit of CCS on power production is now unnecessary – unless new carbon emitters are built, such as the biomass plants under consideration at Westfield and Grangemouth.
Where we should be focusing is on the “unsolved” emissions. These are from industries that cannot be easily decarbonised, such as cement, steel and the processing and refining of petrochemicals – either because they require significant amounts of heat that can only be supplied by fossil fuels, or because they produce carbon dioxide as an intrinsic part of the manufacturing process.
This is where CCS can have a significant impact and is, currently, the only technology that can help us decarbonise our economy whilst retaining our industry. CCS does make industrial processes and power generation more expensive – without adequate environmental taxes, polluting the atmosphere is always going to be cheaper than not polluting it. And if the cost of environmental damage was linked to our dumping of carbon waste into the atmosphere and ocean, then the correct price would dictate our actions. Take landfill tax, which means the majority of waste is now recycled or reused in some economically beneficial form.
This does not mean that CCS isn’t viable. It is simply that the incentives and/or regulations need to be in place to make it the more attractive option. No amount of cost reduction or improved efficiency will support its deployment.
As for the “kettle smart” idea: of course, we should all be reducing our energy consumption. No one would disagree that avoiding or reducing our energy use is the most efficient thing to do. However, economists and environmentalists have been encouraging us for years to switch off lights, not leave appliances on standby, and not overfill the kettle – the fact that Baxter still needs to say this suggests that changing people’s behaviour is not as simple as we would hope.
When millions of individuals’ choices are involved, there are no quick fixes, and there is no one simple answer. Domestic and non-domestic energy efficiency, renewable electricity and CCS are all part of a mix of things that will help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. There is no dichotomy here – we need to address all of these things, and more, if we are to reduce our impact on the climate.
We need to do this nationally and globally, as rapidly as possible. Scotland has had huge success in reducing its greenhouse gases emissions since 1990, due to the actions of citizens and business, supported by cross-party leadership from the Scottish Parliament. Let us celebrate that progress, and make another cup of tea.
Rebecca Bell is a policy and research officer with Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage, a research partnership of the British Geological Survey, Heriot-Watt University, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde working together with universities across Scotland.