The world’s first cement carbon capture project, in Norway. Image: Astrid Westvang/Flickr
What if we could just take the carbon dioxide out of the air? That’s the idea at the heart of carbon capture. Alongside announcing 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences, Rishi Sunak has promised funding for a new carbon capture scheme in north-east Scotland.
It’s only natural to wonder whether we’ve been missing a trick by not hoovering all the climate change away. Politically, at least, carbon capture is being sold as a counterweight to new pollution through oil and gas licences.
But as Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at UCL, explains, it’s not that simple.
What is carbon capture and how does it work?
Smoke from power stations, or industrial plants for steel and cement is captured, then put through a chemical reaction to separate the carbon dioxide. This is then pumped through a pipeline to underground storage facilities.
“The idea is carbon dioxide stays there for many decades, if not hundreds of years, instead of going into the atmosphere causing climate change,” says Watson.
There is also ‘direct air capture’, a costlier method which involves removing existing carbon dioxide from the air.
The costs of carbon capture are twofold: the equipment to capture and store carbon, and then the cost of the energy to carry out the process.
The government has said £20bn of public money will be made available over 20 years for the technology.
The costs are part of the reason why carbon capture should be seen as a last resort, rather than a magic wand to be waved, says Watson.
“It’s a relatively expensive thing to do. If you look at most assessments of how the UK is going to reduce its emissions over the next few decades, carbon capture is usually part of that story. And it’s because there aren’t that many alternatives to some areas of heavy industry, and some other parts of the economy.
“Really, we’re only using carbon capture where there aren’t other options on the table.”
Does the UK have carbon capture, and how much can we capture in the future?
“In the UK, I’d be surprised if it gets into the tens of thousands of tonnes. We’re a very small fraction,” says Watson. Global capacity is currently 45 million tonnes.
The government is talking about achieving 20-30 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2030. Compare this with the UK’s carbon budget target to cut emissions to an average of 350 million tonnes a year between 2028-2032.
“Getting towards 20 to 30 million tonnes by 2030 is pretty challenging,” says Watson, adding that this will require investment and clarity from the government.
Globally, the International Energy Agency says there are plans to reach 125 million tonnes of carbon capture by 2030, however this remains a third below the level needed to reach net zero by 2050.
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