‘Get ahead of the game’ on carbon capture technologies, government urged

The UK government must commit to the wide-scale deployment of new greenhouse gas removal technologies by 2030 in order to meet its climate change obligations, according to a report by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

The report, which was commissioned by the government in November 2020, argues that the engineered removal and storage of CO2 offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that do not currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture. 

Given the scale of removals likely to be needed, these technologies would represent a whole new infrastructure sector that, by 2050, could reach revenues of “tens of billions of pounds a year, comparable that of the UK’s water sector,'' the report states.

The removal technologies explored by the commission fit into two categories. The first involves extracting CO2 directly from the air. The second involves the production of biomass crops and then capturing the CO2 that is released in the production of energy, in the manner planned by Drax. In both cases the captured CO2 is then sent for permanent geological storage, typically under the seabed.

The NIC stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.

But the NIC also stresses that the critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means the government “must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s”.

The commission recommends that the government should support the new sector’s development in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries. This would, over time, enable a competitive market to develop. “Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence,” it adds.

The commission’s analysis suggests engineered removal technologies need to have capacity to remove between five and ten million tonnes of CO2 each year no later than 2030, rising to 40-100mt by 2050. With costs ranging between £100 and £400m per mtCO2 removed, this market could see revenues reach £2bn a year by 2030.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the NIC, said: “Taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse. While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find. 

“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now.”

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