Government must get UK ahead of the game in crucial engineered removals sector 

The technology has an important role to play in helping the UK meet its net zero obligations on greenhouse gases, but immediate action is needed.

Published: 29 Jul 2021

By: Rob Mallows

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The UK from a satellite

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. 

The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t 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 could reach revenues matching that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. 

The removal technologies explored by the Commission fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases the captured carbon dioxide is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.

The Commission 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.  

The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020. 

The report notes that early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.

The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will 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.

The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050. With costs ranging between £100 and £400 million per megatonne of carbon dioxide removed, this market could see revenues reach £2bn a year by 2030.

While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets. The report acknowledges that polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.

Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, 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. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.” 

Notes 

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets. 
  • The terms of reference for this study are available online. Nature-based solutions such as planting more trees are important components in emissions reduction, but were out of scope for this study. 

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