By Prof Stuart Haszeldine
The UK Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) report published today states that the UK can end its contribution to global warming “within 30 years” by setting an ambitious new target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Scotland has even greater potential, it adds, and “can credibly adopt a more ambitious target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045”.
For too many years, we have been overspending from our current accounts at the Carbon Bank. Back in the mists of time, people could burn a forest, hunt for a while and move on. Then we discovered fossil fuels and invented machinery to do all the hard work. We began to demand particular lifestyles and thoughtlessly discarded the by-products. But then we found that the world has a limit. Now that limit has been overtaken and we have nowhere to move onto anymore.
In its report, the CCC warns that we haven’t just overspent on our current account. We’ve also maxed out the credit card. The message about global warming has been wilfully ignored and we must now urgently start paying off the overdraft. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that a smarter approach to carbon management will safeguard society and hundreds of thousands of high-value jobs in clean technologies, which the UK is just starting to build.
How we do this is up to us. There are several options, and the CCC explains some possible and sensible pathways at a cost, which is very affordable. It may cost a little more than business-as-usual, where we dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without another thought. But our choice is to spend 1-2% of our income now on reducing and recapturing greenhouse gas emissions or to face a truly dystopic future as the climate warms and ecosystems can’t adapt fast enough. Does anyone actually want to take their chances on the latter?
The CCC suggests that we do more of what we are already doing in the UK to create a low-carbon culture, but we do it faster and to the required standards of efficiency. That means being much more efficient with energy use, replacing carbon energy with zero-carbon energy, and changing some of the ways that we live our lives; small but essential adjustments across the board.
Then we switch sources of power. Coal is nearly out of the picture in the UK but oil and gas combustion, and even industrial quantities of wood burning, need to decrease towards zero by 2050. During this transition, the trick is not necessarily to stop using fossil fuels overnight – though that should be the ultimate goal. We can deploy technologies that recapture carbon already emitted to the air or at the source of emission. Like a warehouse containing our carbon stock, some comes in, some goes out. At the moment, we’ve overstocked, with carbon piling up at the warehouse doors.
Eventually, through negative emissions technologies (NETs), we can reach a healthy balance. The initial aim of the CCC’s report is to get the UK to a place of delivering negative emissions on its climate balancing journey towards net zero carbon.
However, one common misconception is that net zero is an end-point destination and the job will be done. It is not. Net zero is the point in time at which the UK manages to recapture as much carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other greenhouse gases as it emits each year. The UK would still be emitting greenhouse gases from sections of the economy described as “hard to treat” – abundant dispersed emissions or expensive-to-catch emissions. These are estimated at around 130 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year at the point of net zero.
Negative emissions means recapturing CO₂, which has already been emitted, just like growing new trees captures CO₂ from the air and turns that into wood. The UK must ramp up efforts to target hard-to-treat emissions and at the same time start to deliver negative emissions as early as the mid 2020s and certainly during the 2030s.
To get onto a pathway which fits with the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming to less than 2C, the UK needs to go beyond net zero and continue delivering negative emissions for decades or hundreds of years into the future.
What does this mean for the UK? And is Scotland any different? The CCC report highlights several technologies that will reduce and recapture carbon emissions. A really important fact is that most of these end up with CO₂ being stored securely in geological layers deep below ground. Consequently, the ability to capture, transport, and especially store CO₂, laces through all these actions and weaves them together. It doesn’t matter if it’s trees, industrial processes, power plants or direct air capture. All of these require CO₂ to be stored for thousands of years.
And that’s where the UK gets lucky. The oil and gas resources we have extracted since the 1960s are produced from porous sandstones, which are ideal storage sites for returning carbon to where it came from – deep underground. The UK has one of the world's best opportunities to store massive tonnages of CO₂, enough for 100 to 200 years’ worth of our current economy. The technology to do this already exists, and two projects offshore Norway have together already stored over 30 million tonnes of CO₂ safely and securely. More than 20 other carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects are already operating worldwide. The UK no longer has to take the risk of being first.
Scotland is even luckier. The CCC calculates that England can make a managed transition to net zero by 2050. Scotland can reach that point five years sooner because of a greater capacity for negative emissions. Scotland also has more offshore CO₂ storage, which is more easily accessible.
The Acorn CCS project can begin operating from the north east by 2023, if funding is allocated. This project re-uses pipelines, which formerly brought oil and gas to land and can now transport CO₂ to storage sites.
Developing CCS for Scotland will never get any cheaper. Faced with that, the UK Government’s CCS programme – currently stated as just one UK region beginning CO₂ capture in the late 2020s – needs radical acceleration to become five regions from the early 2020s.
The Scottish Government, with a self-declared climate emergency, should be considering the CCS option anyway, irrespective of what happens in the rest of the UK. It guarantees regional jobs in high-value industries and provides a just transition for fossil-fuel dependent zones. It also provides a CO₂ storage pathway for all regions of the UK. So instead of creating four regional losers in the UK’s latest CCS competition, there would be five winners in double-quick time.