Monday 23 March 2020 3:49 am

Seize the opportunities of carbon capture technology

Dr Rowena Sellens is chief executive of Econic Technologies.

Right now, the government’s only focus is getting the country through the current coronavirus pandemic.

But once we are through the worst, we will turn once again to tackling another global crisis: climate change. 

Read more: We need a carbon border tax to get Britain to net zero

That the government claims to take the climate crisis seriously is impossible to deny. The 2050 target for carbon neutrality is not just commendable, but vital for avoiding the catastrophic consequences of temperature increases. But while the government is serious in its ambitions, there seems to be less clarity around how the UK will reach this goal. 

This is neatly demonstrated by the UK’s current carbon capture policy: even if the £800m pledged to carbon capture and storage technologies doesn’t prove to be a drop in rapidly rising oceans, it appears to have completely ignored technologies that allow carbon to be used.

It seems that, like many before them, this government has ignored the utilisation element of carbon capture storage and utilisation (CCUS) which could play a major part in mitigating the hefty costs of the storage element.

Though carbon capture storage (CCS) can help tackle climate change, storing carbon comes at a price. It has been estimated that capturing and storing one metric tonne of CO2 costs between $600 and $800, not to mention the long-term costs of maintaining storage.

By contrast, technologies that not only allow us to capture carbon but then put it to use in the manufacturing process, replacing oil-based materials, deliver a net economic benefit. By 2030, the CCUS market is expected to be valued at $1 trillion.

These are not technologies of the future — they are here now. Drax recently announced a partnership to use captured carbon from its sustainable biomass power station to create green polyurethane, while CarbonCure has long since been using captured carbon to create concrete. 

Carbon has a range of potential applications across a number of industries, from concrete, fuels, aggregates, methanol, to polymers and chemicals. 

With the right government support, swathes of the economy can benefit from the transformation of carbon from environmental villain, into manufacturing staple.

What’s more, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published a report making it clear that a net-zero carbon economy is only achievable with functioning CCUS infrastructure. The environmental and economic case is evident.

Although the UK’s CCUS sector is one of the most advanced on the global stage, to date we have relied heavily on the private sector for funding. This is no bad thing, but leaves the sector vulnerable to fluctuations in the global economy. Compared to Germany and Canada, the levels of government support pale into insignificance. Unless we act, we risk losing the initiative to competitors.

And it’s not just a question of money; it’s a question of legislation ensuring CCUS technologies are actually adopted. The government must significantly tighten the restrictions on CO2 produced by big industry emitters, so that companies are forced to look for solutions. This would trigger growth in companies developing and deploying CCUS technology, making economic, environmental and productive sense.

Read more: The private sector can be the engine of the low-carbon revolution

We stand at a critical juncture. The awareness of the importance of carbon capture technology is a start, but we need to channel this enthusiasm correctly, and ensure that the money reaches all the relevant sectors. We have the opportunity as a nation to create a world-beating sector that unlocks huge economic benefits. 

When life returns to normal after coronavirus, let’s hope this opportunity is seized.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.