Environment

Rishi Sunak is betting on carbon capture. Can it actually solve the climate crisis?

The government has promised £20bn of public money for carbon capture. An expert explains whether it’s the answer to our hopes

carbon capture

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.

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carbon capture expert Jim Watson
“We’re only using carbon capture where there aren’t other options on the table,” says Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at UCL. Image: Supplied

How much will it cost?

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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How effective is carbon capture?

“Technically speaking, it’s realistic in the sense that other countries have demonstrated it. We know it works technically. The engineering can be done,” says Watson.

The challenge is gearing up supply chain to achieve it in a short amount of time, and find the investment from government and private sector

“Getting towards 20 to 30 million tonnes by 2030 is pretty challenging,” he says, pointing out investors will need more detail to commit their own money and begin building plants.

Does it let polluters off the hook?

As with carbon offsetting projects – think planting trees while keeping emissions high – carbon capture is not a silver bullet, and faces criticism for letting polluters off the hook.

“We really shouldn’t rely on it to tackle climate change,” says Watson, pointing out it is an early, small scale, and unproven technology. Nor is it a replacement for cutting emissions.”

“Do as much as you can as quickly as you can to reduce emissions, and then we are probably going to need some [carbon capture],” he adds.

“But we really shouldn’t be doing that to offset emissions we know we can reduce through other means.”

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