Carbon storage is an imperative of climate action

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) seems to be everywhere at moment – in just the last week, two major reports have come out calling on governments in the UK to act on its delivery. Over the last year, report after report has emphasised the necessity of CCS in tackling climate change, and the urgency of deploying it in industrial clusters around the UK.

And yet, at the one place CCS needs to be – on (and in) the ground and operational at commercial scale – it is notably absent. There are projects ready to go, such as the Acorn project in St Fergus, Aberdeenshire, and pilot trials of CO₂ capture1, but still no actual, operational CCS decarbonising the UK’s industry and setting us on the path to a flourishing zero-carbon economy.

The problem is that CCS – a proven technology, operational around the world, crucial for meeting our climate change targets – isn’t profitable. And if it isn’t profitable, then the private sector won’t do it. The UK Government recognises this and is currently consulting on potential business models and other measures to make CCS more attractive to investors, but the bottom line is that more needs to be done, and faster. If business models can’t be made to work, then government will need to find another way to deliver CCS: as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said, CCS is a necessity, not an option2.
That message has come through loud and clear in report after report. While we wait for both the UK and Scottish governments to respond, here is a run-down of what MPs, MSPs, academics and civil society have been recommending.

First up, in February, the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee3 said that the oil and gas centres of excellence should support the development of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology – utilisation means processes that use captured CO2 to make other products, but without necessarily keeping it out of the atmosphere permanently. It also welcomed government action on CCUS and called for more detail. The Committee suggested that the UK Government should underwrite the liability for oil and gas infrastructure that could be re-used for CCUS while options are explored; and that the Oil and Gas Authority should take a more proactive approach to encouraging this re-use.

Then the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee took a deep dive into CCUS and came up with a set of recommendations for the government on getting CCUS in place. They found that the government’s ambition on CCUS is “so broad as to be meaningless” and recommended, among other things, that it set targets for the quantity of CO₂ stored – 10 million tonnes (Mt) by 2020 and 20Mt by 2030 – in line with the CCC’s recommendations; and that it commits to supporting CCUS.

The Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee came to a similar conclusion in its scrutiny of the new Scottish climate change bill, recommending that the Scottish and UK governments work together on CCUS and use “all levers at their disposal”.

In the midst of all this, the CCC published its advice to the UK Parliament on a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target, advising that the amounts of CO₂ storage it had previously proposed would no longer be enough and that the UK would need to store between 75Mt and 175 Mt CO₂ per year by 2050. The CCC also criticised the UK Government’s approach to climate change as being insufficient to meet even the current long-term greenhouse gas emissions target. It said that “the business department [BEIS] has been too slow in developing plans for carbon capture and storage.” The CCC set out milestones for 2019/20 and the 2020s, with immediate actions including the setting out of a preferred mechanism for CO₂ transport and storage infrastructure, and a plan to enable multiple CCS facilities to be operational by the mid 2020s.

Bringing us up-to-date, at the end of August the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published its report, repeating calls for more detail on the UK Government’s plans for CCS. It urged the government to step up plans for the deployment of greenhouse gas removal technologies and increase funding for research and development in this area. Less than a week later, the Climate Emergency Response Group, a coalition of NGOs, businesses and the public sector, called on the Scottish Government to establish a public interest company to deliver CCS infrastructure as part of its twelve-point plan.

The backdrop to all this is climate strikes, direct action from Extinction Rebellion, and climate emergency declarations from all levels of government – reflecting and responding to an increasing and more visible public demand for action. With the UK Government due to respond to the BEIS Committee’s CCUS recommendations on 2 September, and the Scottish Programme for Government expected the day after, our politicians have the opportunity to realise their stated climate ambition. The case for CCS has been made, now we need action.

Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage (SCCS) is a research partnership of British Geological Survey, Heriot-Watt University, University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh and the 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.