This post is by Dustin Benton, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance and author of our recent policy insight The CCS challenge: securing a second chance for UK carbon capture and storage.
Recent announcements on carbon capture and storage have made it clear that it is make or break time for the technology. CCS is controversial. Its detractors point out that it doesn’t deal with the problems of resource extraction, and may only buy us a few more decades of fossil fuel power generation. But its potential to enable rapid reductions in CO2 emissions, from the power sector and industrial emitters both in the UK and abroad, mean that we, at least, should establish whether or not CCS is possible. The starting point for doing this in the UK is a publicly funded, multibillion pound demonstration programme, which was relaunched a few weeks ago.
A second chance
The programme started back in 2007, but failed to secure a demonstration plant, for reasons explored in our recent report. Despite this half-decade delay, industry remains incredibly positive about the prospects for CCS, and the UK is still in a very strong position to commercialise the technology. We have a second chance for CCS, but both our analysis and UKERC’s suggests we’ll miss this chance without a sea change in policy.
Our report summarised the three policy approaches to CCS commercialisation in the table below:
The low risk, low intervention, low cost approach to CCS development (the Optimistic approach in the table) has been the basis of government policy so far. But this won’t work quickly enough to deliver significant amounts of CCS by 2030.
The approach we have suggested (the Optimistic+ approach) cuts development time but involves a big increase in government co-ordination. This means CCS clusters, a CCS cost-reduction task force, the prospect of stable funding and an emissions trajectory in the forthcoming energy bill which will clarify the business case for CCS. This approach is higher risk, because the government would need to intervene and force the pace of innovation, but it is still relatively low cost.
Ensuring CCS is a runner
In contrast, the UKERC report uses six detailed historical analogues to draw a more cautious conclusion. All of the UKERC’s successful scenarios have 4-7 GW of pre-commercial CCS, making them similar to the third approach shown in our table. Pursuing this approach means spending more and co-ordinating more. This would reduce the risks compared to the approach we proposed, and the UKERC’s excellent analysis highlights how significant these risks are. However, this means greater public funding, which will need a robust public interest justification.
One justification might come from DECC, which intends to “run a low carbon technology race between CCS, renewables and nuclear power” in the late 2020s to discover what the cheap, low carbon technology of the future is. If we want to keep pursuing this aim, UKERC’s work suggests that, at minimum, we need to get CCS to a point at which we can judge whether or not it can take part in this race.
So how do we do this? One of the most useful aspects of UKERC’s report is an analysis of the points at which we’ll be able to see whether we’re on track to commercial CCS, or whether we’re starting to fall into a much lower delivery pathway, and need to plan for alternatives. The ‘branching points’ (highlighted by the circles) are alarmingly soon:
This means pursuing a serious, concerted effort following both UKERC’s and our policy recommendations to at least 2016. The costs, both in effort and in money, are low up to this point. The benefits are clear. The alternative is to forego one of the three big options for decarbonisation before we even know if it will work.
 The reference point for our report was reducing power sector emissions to 50gCO2/kWh by 2030, but the timeframe is relevant globally as well: 2030 is over a decade after global emissions need to have peaked and be falling, and European decarbonisation policy is counting on a huge ramp up in CCS from 2030 onwards.