A turbulent year of extreme weather events and global politics has drawn to a close with the stark warning from scientists that climate change is happening faster than previously predicted.
As 2019 ran its course, national governments and local authorities across the UK declared a climate emergency, which led many of us to believe that they would pull out all the stops to get climate action under way.
Yet, despite some policy progress being made, another year goes by with stated aspirations still just words on pages instead of projects delivering actual greenhouse gas reductions – at least at the scale required to avert the worst impacts of an overheating planet.
Given the ongoing debate and procrastination, the urgent need for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology grows ever stronger. CCS features as an “essential” technology in all the key climate reports, from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UK Government’s own strategies for industrial growth.
The reality is that the next ten years will seal our fate. Containing the global temperature rise to 2 degrees, never mind 1.5 degrees, will be unachievable if we don’t grab ourselves by the lapels and start delivering serious carbon reduction programmes.
We’ve written before about Scotland’s unique potential for CCS deployment, and the need for the right policies to make it happen – it won’t be profitable without government intervention and therefore companies won’t invest.
The CCC itself has accused the UK government of kicking the can down the road and being “too slow in developing plans” for the technology’s deployment.
So why is there such a disconnect between the necessity for CCS and urgent action? Why are the people who are so vocal about the need for climate action not knocking on the doors of their elected representatives demanding it?
Partly it is an image problem. CCS has an undeservedly poor reputation, which comes from policy decisions, and the language used to justify them, rather than the technology itself.
Partly, it’s because it is not that obvious as a need and, therefore, a solution. Unless you work in or live near heavy industry, it is easy to forget that this sector contributes 21% of our greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s literally invisible: a mental image of a wind turbine is pretty easy to conjure up but ask someone to visualise subsurface geological CO₂ storage? Almost impossible.
There is also a lot of misinformation about CCS, which is hard to shift in the public and political consciousness, but which needs to be addressed.
All this adds up to some quarters dismissing CCS as a “unicorn” – a fantasy that distracts attention and resources from more established routes to emissions reduction.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
CCS is proven technology, which has been operating safely across the world for decades. It is the lowest cost means of decarbonisation. Obviously, it is more expensive than doing nothing – but with a global agreement to tackle climate change, doing nothing isn’t an option.
CCS continues to be (wrongly) linked with power generation, which makes it easy to dismiss in light of the growth of renewable electricity. In fact, power is pretty much irrelevant for discussions of CCS in Scotland: it is needed elsewhere, to decarbonise industry and open up options for decarbonising heat and transport with hydrogen.
Industrial decarbonisation is crucial – especially if you include the emissions produced in the manufacture of goods we import from overseas – but since it doesn’t directly touch most people’s lives, it is often sidelined in discussions about how we reach net zero.
Then there’s the myth that CCS systems can only capture 90% of the CO₂ emitted from a given process and so is not good enough. Notwithstanding the fact that 100% of industrial emissions are right now swirling about our heads, so a 90% reduction would be a pretty big deal. In fact, it’s possible to capture 100% of CO₂ emitted if you’re prepared to pay for it, and these days the cost difference between 90% and 100% capture rates is minimal.
CCS involves injecting and storing CO₂ inside porous rocks – much like feeding a Christmas cake with brandy – a kilometre or more below the surface.
There are no giant caverns involved and plenty of layers of impermeable rock to stop the CO₂ coming back to the surface.
CO₂ storage is safe and permanent. The development of a full-scale CCS network will be underpinned by the same health, safety and environmental regulations that other industries must meet. In fact, the rules will be more stringent.
Renewable energy is undoubtably the way to go for electricity, but even these clean technologies create CO2 emissions from the cement and steel used in their production. CCS enables these materials to be produced with fewer CO₂ emissions, and, crucially, it can support a just transition to a net zero carbon future for workers in on- and offshore industries.
CCS is also the best option for decarbonising the production of things that could be considered less essential, and which may not be needed in future. So, is it worth decarbonising their production now? We would argue that, if it is possible to decarbonise an industrial process, then it should be done. This is the practical approach, which recognises that changes in consumption will not happen overnight.
CCS means we can make deep emissions cuts – quickly – while at the same time tackling the tricky problems of decarbonising the rest of our lives. It may not be beautiful but it’s effective and it can have a massive impact. People have been looking at CCS wrong: it’s not a unicorn, it’s a rhinoceros.
This article was written in conjunction with Indira Mann, SCCS communications and knowledge exchange executive.
SCCS is a research partnership of British Geological Survey, Heriot-Watt University, University of Aberdeen, The University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde. Its researchers are engaged in high-level CCS research as well as joint projects with industry to support the development and commercialisation of CCS as a climate mitigation technology.