We are capable of dealing with climate change: The role of Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage
As part of our special blog series, Queen's Voices on COP26, Dr Andrew Newton, Senior Lecturer in the School of Natural and Built Environment, explains why Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage will be what makes or breaks the net zero target.
The net zero target
In geology we work on the principle that the present is the key to the past. As a geoscientist this means that to better understand the geological record, I need a good understanding of modern environmental processes. This affords me the perspective of being able to place contemporary climate change into a longer-term geological context using a range of geophysical and numerical methods.
In a 2-hour lecture I present to first year students, we go on a 4.6 billion year journey through Earth’s climate history. This has been derived from the geological record, where the lines separating different rock types often tell us about environmental changes at the time those rocks were formed.
What we see in the geological record is that the lines have often been the result of large-scale climate changes that have been driven by the carbon cycle. More poignantly, these lines are often drawn, not necessarily because the rock types change, but because we see major extinctions in the fossil record. Thus, we know that climate changes can have far reaching consequences for life on Earth.
The major difference between us in the present and the geological past is that we are seeing changes of a similar magnitude to those that wiped out life in the past occurring at a much faster speed. But – and it is an important “but” – for the first time in geological history, we are capable of dealing with the causes of this change: us.
The build up to COP26 has seen the airwaves full of politicians congratulating each other on their net zero emissions pledges without outlining how they plan to carry it out, all as global carbon emissions bounce back after the pandemic. The scale of the problem, should we fail to rise to the challenge, will weigh heavy on humanity for generations, with the consequences most profoundly felt by the those with the least.
There is no simple solution to this and it will be incumbent upon governments to build a range of policies that weave their way through every part of our daily lives. This takes time, something that we do not have an abundance of. Even under the most optimistic of carbon light timelines – where every home is better insulated, it eats less meat, and has electric vehicles in the driveway – there is likely to be a deficit in hitting a net zero target.
So what can we do?
Trees will certainly be helpful, better land management will be useful too, but most importantly, the main method that could buy us both time and reduced carbon emissions is Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS).
Whilst the engineering is complex, it perhaps sounds more complicated than it really is. CCUS would essentially stop emissions at power stations, cement or steel works, and chemical plants from ever entering the atmosphere – an emission that was never emitted. The carbon dioxide can then be used for something else, or, more likely, it will be stored in the geological subsurface – the opposite process of traditional gas production, if you will.
Some activists argue that negative emissions technology such as CCUS gives industry and governments the leeway to offset emissions rather than stop them. While that is a reasoned argument, it somewhat ignores that we simply cannot switch from one energy portfolio to another; it takes time, it has to be a transition.
The jury is out on whether the UK Government will meet the net zero target, regardless of who is in charge, because of the constant failure to work collaboratively with other parties to ensure climate change policies have cross-party support. Such support is necessary because it would mean policies can survive a change in government come election time. Even if the target is met, some industry will continue to rely on oil and gas for certain activities, so negative emission technology will still be a necessity after 2050.
The UK storage potential
For decades, the UK North Sea was one of the world’s largest sources of hydrocarbons, with a huge boon to the public purse and the British economy. Now as the North Sea matures, the extensive infrastructure, expertise, and large storage capacity opens up a whole new world of economics. The geology of the North Sea means it could store substantial amounts of carbon dioxide, not just for the UK, but also from our neighbours in Europe.
The North Sea could become Europe’s carbon dioxide storage facility, and it has already started. Since the mid-1990s, in the Norwegian North Sea, CCUS has been taking place, with more recent developments becoming operational and in development. If the Norwegians can do it, what has prevented the UK from pursuing CCUS?
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The above text is taken directly from the UK Government website, so it is clear to see that whilst they see the benefits of CCUS, it comes down to the hard numbers. It is not difficult to make the argument that the cost of inaction would potentially dwarf the cost of action, but we are where we are. Tautology aside, it is expensive, it has implications for industry efficiency, and it is something that previous Governments have dodged too.
The science behind CCUS is still developing and there have been several pilot projects across the globe that are building new knowledge all the time.
In the UK, we had pilots at Longannet in Fife (cancelled in 2011) and Peterhead (cancelled in 2015). CCUS is a technology we are still getting to grips with, in some places it has worked and in others it has proved more challenging. This is a problem, not least of all because in order to meet 2050 targets, CCUS is not really an option: it is a necessity – a necessity that forms a disappointingly low proportion of the net zero discussion. Not discussing the issues associated with a key pillar of the net zero strategy is only going to make the challenge even harder.
Something that has barely been discussed is the role hydrogen energy is going to play. The Government have regularly extolled the virtues of hydrogen power, presenting it as one of the biggest resources for meeting emission targets. However, I have yet to see a proper Government discussion on the fact that hydrogen production can itself emit large volumes of carbon. Once again, we end up back where we started, with the need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, though in this case from a different source that was supposed to limit carbon emissions in the first place. Once again, we end up back having a discussion of CCUS. Once again, it is clear to see why advocates of CCUS like me are calling for crystal clear clarity on the rollout of CCUS and a well-defined, long-term strategy for timescales beyond election timespans.
A large proportion of my research is on CCUS in the North Sea and some of this work has been presented in offices the world over highlighting storage potential. There is clearly an industry appetite for CCUS and the potential that it holds. However, if CCUS is going to be upscaled to what is required, then it is going to require policymakers to develop some commitment to it. The previous pilot project cancellations do not inspire confidence, but recently some money was allocated for CCUS and this is to be warmly applauded, even if it is not yet a clear signal of ambition. This commitment only scratches the surface and more needs to be done.
CCUS is expensive – nobody denies that – but without the UK Government incentivising CCUS or taxing carbon, it is unlikely that industry is going to whole-heartedly get behind it. Ultimately, this is likely to be the biggest stumbling block as it requires the UK Government to make the expensive first step.
The economic potential of selling carbon storage and knowledge to our partners and the global impact of becoming a world leader on CCUS should not be underestimated.
The best estimates suggest that the UK’s potential storage capacity might be enough to store over 500 years of emissions at the UK’s current annual rate, so there is plenty of room for renting out some of the storage and selling the expertise that calculated it. It is time for the UK Government to get properly serious about CCUS in the UK – I am happy to go on the record here that it will be what makes or breaks the net zero target.