Stop treating carbon removal technologies as a silver bullet, MPs warn Government
MPs are urging the Government to do more to ensure that big emitters reduce their emissions footprint before offsetting and investing in emerging carbon removal technologies.
The call to action comes from MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which is currently conducting an inquiry into the role that emerging, innovative technologies will play in delivering the UK’s 2050 net-zero target.
In a letter sent to Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today (29 March), Committee members are outlining how dozens of experts have provided evidence to the inquiry around negative-emission technologies (NETs) such as carbon capture and storage on bioenergy plants and direct air capture, which ‘sucks’ carbon dioxide from the air. The experts have voiced concerns that the Government has assigned “limited” resource to assessing the role of NETs and has provided “no clear direction” on scaling them up in a responsible manner.
The letter argues that the Government may have been wrong to combine targets for reducing emissions and for “netting” emissions using NETs into one figure through last year’s Net-Zero Strategy. It states that, without sector-specific targets to reduce emissions, some big emitters may see emerging technologies as a “free pass”, despite there being no guarantee that they will scale.
Experts have told the EAC’s members, the letter states, that the future benefits of man-made NETs are “highly uncertain” and that their deployment is currently “close to zero” in the UK.
The letter requests that Kwarteng’s Department, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), explains the rationale for combining reduction and removals targets in the Net-Zero Strategy. It also requests information on whether a net-zero pathway is possible without NETs entirely, or without them as a “principal element”.
The MPs also want the Government to clarify how it will monitor the impact of NETs and to set out what safeguards or alternatives it has planned if NETs do not scale as anticipated.
The Net-Zero Strategy is notably the subject of two legal challenges from Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth. These organisations have argued that it does not align with the Climate Change Act, partly due to the absence of sector-specific goals for reducing emissions through to mid-century.
In addition to questioning how NETs will be scaled – and what the Government will do if they do not scale – the letter asks how BEIS plans to ensure that they will be used by the right kind of buyers. Heavy industrial sectors like steel, for example, will find it harder to cut emissions in the coming decades than other sectors, and as such, should be allowed to use NETs to a greater extent.
The letter also calls for more information on the true environmental sustainability of NETs across their value chains. It notes, for example, that the UK’s largest biomass and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) project, at Drax’s Selby power plant, is predominantly powered using imported wood pellets. Also questioned are the Government’s plans to ensure that uses of captured carbon are sustainable.
Philip Dunne MP, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, has asked for a response from BEIS before Easter.
“Through our work, it is clear that Government thinking on NETs needs to be developed,” said Dunne. “These technologies will play an important role in meeting net-zero, because to maintain the viability of our steel and cement sectors, they need to find ways to restrict the volume of greenhouse gases they emit.
“Presently, there is little in terms of incentive and very little in terms of any Government direction or clarity. The fact that removal and reduction targets are combined enables many sectors averse or unable to cut emissions to dodge their responsibilities. Transparency and accountability must be improved by separating these targets out and highlighting the work that needs to be done.
“The sector is raring to go as soon as the Government offers direction and clarity, but with so many unknowns we can understand why the deployment of NETs in the UK is yet to gain traction.”
Earlier this month, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) think-tank published a major new report arguing that carbon removals will be needed even in the case of “deep” decarbonisation happening globally – largely due to current and historical levels of emissions.
The report acknowledges the fact that no single solution has been deployed at scale yet, or is likely to scale enough to deliver the necessary levels of emissions removals by 2050. As such, it advocates for a mix of nature-based and man-made solutions, with governments and the private sector taking a much more in-depth look at their long-term investment plans.
For the UK specifically, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommends that the nation prepares to capture 22 million tonnes of CO2e annually using man-made and nature-based methods by 2030, in order to reach its Sixth Carbon Budget commitment. The Committee warned this summer that current BEIS plans are likely to deliver just 10 million tonnes of capture annually by the end of the decade.
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