This is a quick response to UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak’s, announcement of funding for a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Scotland. It also aims to correct the sloppy reporting about the role of CCS on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme (31/07/23).
1. The specific technology is not proven at scale, nor has been shown to be economically viable.
Comparing over twenty years of successful CCS operation on the Norwegian Sleipner gas field is not ‘proof of technology’ for what is being proposed in Scotland. The carbon dioxide captured at Sleipner comes directly from the wellhead along with the useful methane gas; around 9% of the produced gas is CO2.
Although there are some important technical similarities, capturing CO2 from the flue gases of powerstations, or from hydrogen production or through ‘direct air capture’ are different engineering challenges from the much simpler process of capturing and storing CO2 from Sleipner.
The ‘Acorn’ CCS project being proposed in Scotland has not been successfully demonstrated at scale and over a long period. Importantly, there is also no evidence that CCS on energy, or indeed direct air capture, makes any sense economically.
Several pilot schemes have been attempted and some are still in the phase of early operation. The only long-running example of CCS from an operating powerstation is the relatively small (around 110MW) Boundary Dam unit in Canada, and this has been bedevilled with technical problems. This is not to say the technology cannot be made to work at scale, but it is incorrect and risks being misleading to give the impression the technology is tried and tested at scale, let alone economic compared with the alternatives.
For more information about CCS, this beginner’s guide is worth a quick read – though the storage issues are less problematic for the UK https://www.eenews.net/articles/the-complete-guide-to-ccs-and-the-epa-power-plant-rule/.
2. The proposed capture of CO2 is dwarfed by the CO2 emissions from the proposed new oil and gas fields.
The government wants to maximise oil and gas production from the North Sea, which in effect will put many hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Yet it plans to use CCS to capture just a few tens of million tonnes. The proposed Rosebank oil field alone is estimated to produce between 300 and 500 million barrels of oil, which when combusted will emit in the region of 100 to 200 million tonnes of CO2.
The newly announced Acorn project is designed to initially capture just 0.3 million tonnes of CO2 per year, and then “from this acorn mighty oaks may grow” … increasing by a few million tonnes as more schemes plug into the Acorn storage infrastructure.
While the PM, co-opted experts and slapdash journalists speak fervently about a few million tonnes of CO2 captured, all the climate will register is lots more CO2 dumped in the atmosphere. Consequently, temperatures will continue to rise unless other nations choose to compensate for the UK’s CCS façade.
Sticking with temperature, ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) will mean an ongoing warming of the climate. Yet, whilst CCS may capture some of the CO2 that would otherwise be emitted, the process looks set to have very high lifecycle GHG emissions overall. Even an ‘all-singing all-dancing’ CCS powerstation will likely see emissions well in excess of 100gCO2/kWh; i.e. many times more than from wind or solar.
3. The misuse of so-called “hard to abate” sectors.
Another ruse to justify a CCS-ed business as usual model, is that there are ‘hard to abate’ sectors, such as aviation and agriculture (fertiliser). These were again repeated on several occasions in the BBC’s coverage.
However, CCS on a powerstation is not going to stop CO2 being released from burning kerosene in an aircraft. The only near-medium term answer for this sector is a rapid, massive and fair cut in aviation use – at least until zero-carbon aircraft have replaced most of the current fleet. On fertiliser, the challenge is more real, but there is still an important and obvious first step – eat less meat. A large part of the world’s agricultural system is dedicated to growing crops and vegetables to feed animals, which we then eat. Reduce the last part of this equation (i.e. eat less meat), and the huge inefficiencies in the system mean far less fertiliser is required.
4. CCS is another part of the ‘Net-Zero 2050’ rejection of our Paris commitments.
A final and key factor to consider is time – and this goes to the very heart of the UK’s net zero 2050 framing of climate change. At current rates of global emissions, we will exceed the remaining carbon budget for a 50:50 chance of not exceeding 1.5°C in around 8 years and, for staying “well below 2°C”, eighteen years. Add in the equity part of the Paris Agreement, whereby poorer nations have a little longer to reduce emissions than the wealthier nations, and the UK (like other ‘developed’ nations) needs a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use and production, eliminating both by around 2030 for 1.5°C and 2035-40 for 2°C.
Within this timeframe, using CCS for reducing (but far from eliminating) the greenhouse gases from energy is little more than a dangerous distraction. Yes, CCS likely has an important role in stopping emissions from some industrial process, particularly cement and possibly steel. But that is very different from using it to support an oil and gas industry that needs to be phased out within 10 to 15 years at the latest, if we are to meet our Paris commitments.
- CCS on electricity generation / hydrogen production is not proven at scale – nor anything like it.
- CCS looks set to be extremely expensive, requiring huge public subsidy.
- CCS is needed for select industries – primarily cement, but possibly some steel production.
- CCS is far too little far too late in relation to reducing emissions from energy.
- CCS still has very high greenhouse gas emissions.
A few million pounds spent on CCS and a fanfare announcement do not substitute for the portfolio of polices so urgently required of our leaders if we are to play our fair part in delivering on the Paris 1.5 and 2°C commitments.
For a more detailed account of CCS (and CCUS) within the Scottish context, see the evidence submitted to a Scottish Parliamentary inquiry on the subject: https://www.parliament.scot/-/media/files/committees/net-zero-energy-and-transport-committee/correspondence/2022/20220310_ccus_anderson.pdf