CCS: New enthusiasm, old uncertainty, and the need for a Delivery Body

07 Nov 2018

The latest independent report to the UK government on carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) was published in July this year. The CCUS Cost Challenge Task Force (CCTF) reported under the heading “Delivering Clean Growth”. 

There have also been new pronouncements on CCS in the Committee on Climate Change’s annual update to Parliament and in the National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment.

Like everyone else who works in and around CCS in the UK, Ian Temperton, who is also an Advisory Board Member of UKERC, spends vastly more time writing reports and sitting on committees than he does actually trying to capture, transport and store CO2.

From the perspective of someone who sat on the CCTF and the previous Parliamentary Advisory Group (PAG) on CCS which reported in 2016, he takes a critical look at what these various bodies have said this year and puts them in the context of the many previous reports on the subject.

CCS, a citizen of nowhere?

While CCS needs to be deployed at very large scale for many pathways that restrict global warming to acceptable levels, including those for the UK, progress to date has been negligible.

The UK government seems to have a new enthusiasm for CCS but it is hard to extract a clear strategy from the recent interventions.

The very premise on which the government bases its current approach to CCS looks very much like it wishes to “have its cake and eat it”. The accompanying desire not to look like it is “picking winners” means that recent reports don’t make a particularly compelling case for CCS at all, at least in the medium term.

This challenges the very nature of whole energy systems thinking.  CCS, with its potential applications across the energy sector in electricity, heat, transport and heavy industry (not to mention negative emissions) should be, and indeed is, easy to make the whole of system case for.  However, being a citizen of the whole energy system makes CCS a citizen of nowhere, and we are no clearer to plotting an efficient route for deployment through the many potential applications of this technology.

The need for a public Delivery Body

The business model for CCS leaves many unanswered questions.  What role does regulation have?  Should it be publicly or privately financed?  How can “full-chain” CCS be delivered? How can we leverage competition (a word which can hardly be spoken in the CCS debate)?  How do we create the right incentives for heavy industry?  Can we learn from other large infrastructure projects like London’s Super Sewer? And how does CCS fit in an energy system increasingly dominated by low marginal cost sources of supply like renewables?

The paper finds little to suggest that CCS policy in the UK has become any clearer. 

Given the need to develop quickly under such high levels of policy uncertainty, and given that the public sector always has, and always will, fund the majority of the costs of developing CCS, the paper argues for the formation of a public Delivery Body.  It also suggests that time is short to make the case and develop the plan for such a body ahead of next year’s UK Government Spending Review.

If we are to harness the new government enthusiasm while addressing the same old uncertainties in CCS policy then there is an inevitable and critical role for a Delivery Body.