Capturing Carbon Isn’t Enough. We Need to Remove It.

March 18, 2023
Media Highlights
Is this British government, short of cash and political capital, nimble enough to take on the US for a leadership role in the race to net zero?

Washington Post - In the next fortnight, Britain plans to announce a raft of environmental policies in a big splash internally dubbed “Green Day.” So, news on much-needed planning reforms, green finance, electric vehicle manufacturing, domestic insulation, heat pumps and so on is likely.

But we got a first step this week with a spending pledge on a climate technology that many view as vital to the clean-energy transition.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt announced £20 billion ($24 billion) in funding for carbon capture, usage and storage (sometimes referred to as simply carbon capture and storage, or CCS) over 20 years. It’s a punchy investment that gives certainty where it was lacking, but something is missing.  

A consensus is steadily forming that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is an essential piece of the net-zero puzzle. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now concedes that, due to slow action on emissions reduction, engineered carbon removal is now essential to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. In the UK, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), a government advisory body, says that 19% of the UK’s emissions abatement will come from a combination of carbon capture and removal by 2050. The UK government has already set targets to store 20-30 million tons of CO2 a year by 2050 and deploy at least 5 million tons of annual engineered greenhouse gas removals by 2030.

But CCS is not the same as CDR, and that distinction matters here.

Think of CCS as neutral emissions (or nearly neutral, as it’s not 100% efficient) – it refers to capturing carbon dioxide at the source, say a power plant or factory, and then injecting it underground. It is a proven technology, though has developed a bad reputation for its use in “enhanced oil recovery,” in which the captured CO2 is used to help to push deep or viscous oil out of wells. Not exactly good PR for a future climate technology. But there’s no doubt CCS will be helpful in the transition as an emissions reduction method, as long as it’s not used as an excuse to slow down the transition away from fossil fuels. Gas CCS is likely to play a small role in a net zero electricity grid, for example. It’ll also help reduce emissions from some hard-to-abate sectors like heavy industry.

Carbon removal, on the other hand, is about drawing down historical emissions by either utilizing nature – through reforestation, for example – or new technologies like direct air capture (DAC) and has the potential to essentially sweep up the excess CO2 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere. CDR – nature-based or otherwise – is projected to play a large role in healing our planet, but a lot of approaches are still in the early development stages and need more investment.

That’s why it’s a little disappointing that the UK’s £20 billion is only for CCS.

To be sure, many are happy to see the government finally getting behind the technology after years of lobbying. Plus, investment in CCS will benefit certain CDR methods that could share the same CO2 transport and storage infrastructure, such as DAC and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), as Devina Banerjee, policy and program manager at climate NGO Carbon Gap, told me.

But, as Ted Christie-Miller, head of carbon removal at the carbon market ratings firm BeZero Carbon, explained, if the UK doesn’t do something big to help foster novel carbon removal methods soon, it could lose out on an opportunity for green growth.

The US’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Act have together provided billions to support the development and deployment of carbon-removal approaches, including $3.5 billion for four DAC hubs alone. While the UK can’t compete in terms of cash, it could leverage its position as a world leader in research to nurture climate startups. Without more funding and regulatory support, UK climate innovations risk getting stuck in the so-called valley of death, a period in which a significant increase in funding is required to make the transition from academic research to commercialization. With the US offerings already tempting some startups to cross the pond, including Switzerland’s Climeworks AG, the UK could really miss out on the potential to create even more green jobs, level up its regional hubs and become an exporter of cutting-edge climate technology.

Although reducing emissions is a priority, and the government is right to put some money into developing CCS in the UK, we can’t wait to start fostering the tools of the future. Let’s hope the UK has something serious to say about supporting engineered carbon-removal methods – as well as throwing more weight behind planning reforms, renewables, heat pumps and more – later this month.

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