Capturing the market

The UK has what it takes to lead the way in carbon capture and storage

January 26, 2021
The world’s first carbon capture storage (CCS) site in Germany. Such sites may become commonplace across the UK as CCS becomes a viable alternative © Bernhard Classen/Alamy Stock Photo
The world’s first carbon capture storage (CCS) site in Germany. Such sites may become commonplace across the UK as CCS becomes a viable alternative © Bernhard Classen/Alamy Stock Photo

The UK was the first fossil fuel-based society, benefiting greatly in capability and wealth. But this also had negative impacts, and the UK was soon feeling them, from soot to acid rain. Clean-up technologies for these problems developed in three stages, from “totally impossible” to “technically possible but far too expensive,” to “routine and obviously the right thing to do.” Today, the negative impact that threatens us most is climate change. People automatically think that fossil fuel use is the cause, but dumping the resulting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the problem. The clean up technology for this, carbon capture and storage (CCS), is now somewhere between the second and third stages.

There are two ways to cure humanity’s habit of just dumping fossil CO2: directly capture that CO2 where it’s produced, or let it be emitted and capture a corresponding amount of CO2 from the atmosphere elsewhere. In both cases, the captured CO2 needs to go back deep underground (a kilometre or more), where the same geology that kept oil and gas in place for millions of years can do the same for their combustion product. Uses for CO2 that permanently lock it up (for at least multiple centuries) are also legitimate. 

We can avoid dangerous climate change as long as all fossil fuel use, and other greenhouse-gas-emitting activities, take place with enough CCS to give net-zero emissions before the total amount of CO2 emitted grows large enough to lock in problems. Obviously, if cheaper and better alternatives to fossil fuel use with CCS are available then they should and will be used. But to go from a world that today gets over 80 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels to one that uses zero fossil fuels as quickly as required seems unlikely.

The UK is leading globally on CCS because of some unique assets: the Climate Change Committee to do the sums that show that CCS is “a necessity not an option” to deliver net zero; around as much secure CO2 storage, located far offshore where nobody lives, as the rest of Europe put together; and also clusters of big industrial CO2 emitters on coastal sites that can easily access this storage via CO2 pipelines or shipping.

The revolution we are embarking on is in creating regulations and market conditions to pull all this together, within a decade, into a multi-billion-pound industry supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs and capturing and storing 10 megatonnes of CO2 per year. This will require some expert engineering, initially using already-available, well-proven technologies for CCS; the projects have to work, and they must be effective in economic terms to satisfy a naturally-sceptical Treasury. As was said in our first Industrial Revolution, a good engineer is someone who can do for sixpence what any fool can do for a shilling. Leaps in technology will come later, once some UK CCS plants are in service and there is a “sewerage system” for CO2 that new projects in the clusters can use.

There are big prizes for getting CCS right. The UK has a natural economic advantage because of our geology and geography. If the government can sort out regulations and cost-recovery mechanisms quickly enough then private capital is ready to provide post-Covid stimulus investment in return for future clean energy income streams. And if UK involvement in designing, building and developing the CCS clusters is prioritised so some of the lost opportunities of offshore wind are not repeated, then we can build new high-tech, low-carbon industries. Finally, the UK CCS initiative is globally unique and so likely to get a lot more notice than our renewables or nuclear at venues like COP26. And UK money spent on tackling climate change can deliver a meaningful return really only if the rest of the world is encouraged to act as well.

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.