Thoughts on ‘Net Zero: The UK's contribution to stopping global warming’, Committee on Climate Change, May 2019

The Committee on Climate change has set a challenging but achievable target of net zero GHG emissions by 2050. With MPs approving a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency, and London being brought to a standstill by Extinction Rebellion, it is clear that this is a timely report.  It re-affirms the vital role of Carbon Capture and Storage in meeting this target, in industry, hydrogen production, electricity generation and negative emissions technologies; “CCS is a necessity not an option for reaching net-zero GHG emissions”. Below, the directors of the UKCCSRC discuss the implications in each of their areas.


Raising the groundswell?


Dr David Reiner, UKCCSRC Deputy Director for Systems and Policy, Assistant Director of the Energy Policy Research Group, University of Cambridge

The Committee on Climate Change adopts a very positive view of the potential role for CCS in its new report on Net Zero, which is in keeping with its longstanding support for CCS playing a major role in its decarbonisation scenarios. In the current report it envisions a large amount of CO2 (75-175 Mt CO2 per year) captured and stored by 2050. The need for CCS for industrial clusters (also including large-scale production of hydrogen) in the 2020s is presented as clear and urgent in the report. By contrast, GGR technologies such as BECCS are anticipated to have a slower rollout with the 2020s reserved for the stage labelled ‘develop options and policy framework’, but by 2050, removals and BECCS are envisioned to possibly play a critical role in meeting a net-zero target.

It is important to note that the CCC has had to reduce the role of CCS in its near-term projections (~2020-2025) because of the failure of government to deliver on past commitments to support first-of-a-kind demonstrations via its unsuccessful competitions in 2011 and 2015. In 2009, the CCC commissioned analysis from Pöyry exploring up to 18 GW of natural gas power plants with CCS over the 2020s. In its 2010 report on the Fourth Carbon Budget, the CCC assumed that after the first demonstrations in the 2010s there would be a second phase of CCS deployment from the early 2020s.  As late as October 2015, in its analysis of the Fifth Carbon Budget, the CCC envisioned between 25 and 50 TWh (3-6 GW baseload) of CCS in the power sector in 2030, with a contribution starting in 2020.  Of course, one month later in November 2015, the Government cancelled the second CCS Competition and the deployment had to be deferred further still.

The CCC draws attention to the slow progress of CCS in the UK and in its recommendations found in the Executive Summary of the Net Zero report emphasises the need to prioritise “where progress has been too slow: low-carbon heating, hydrogen, CCS and agriculture and land use”. The recommendations continue on by drawing attention to how “policies must be designed with businesses and consumers in mind. They must be stable, long-term and investable. The public must be engaged”. 

Both political and public support (and awareness) has been almost completely absent over the history of CCS and much of the explanation for the failure of CCS lies in failed politics and policies.  And yet, the evidentiary base on public attitudes (such as it is) is largely ignored by the CCC.  A better understanding of how the public responds to this call for dramatic reductions is essential to create a groundswell of public support for both CCS and the majority of the efforts outlined in their report – they highlight how “Over 60% of the abatement in our net-zero scenarios to 2050 involve some degree of change from consumers” and 10% is entirely driven by consumer choices.  There is only one small box (on page 194) on the subject, in which they somewhat generously describe evidence of the “disconnect between public concern about climate change and an understanding of what is required to reduce emissions across the UK economy”. Thus, a key question for the future of UK decarbonisation is how to explain that disconnect and how to make the progress needed despite public ambivalence. 


A life-changing report


Prof. Stuart Haszeldine, UKCCSRC Deputy Director for Storage, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage, University of Edinburgh, OBE, FRSE

The CCC’s report is a chunky read at 276 pages.  But "this report will change your life" is a commentary by Prof Dave Reay, that could turn out to be true.  This report lays out, for the first time ever in the world, a pathway with activities and timescales, by which a major industrial economy can move from very high CO2 emissions to 'net zero" greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Note the change of units from CO2, to the 20% greater ambition of all GHG. And that is to be achieved by 2050, with a cost no greater than the 1-2% of GDP - the same cost which was predicted at the time of the 2008 Climate Act to reach just -80% of CO2 emissions in the 1990 reference year.  "This report will be a Landmark" said CEO Chris Stark. And Lord Deben followed with "The Government asked for the facts, so we gave it to them". And Secretary of State Greg Clarke stated "the aim is to eradicate the UK contribution to global warming, not to reduce it". How can this be done?  By building on the foundations of systems established during the past 10 years. And by the unpredicted rapid cost reductions from building low carbon energies at scale.

And Net Zero is just a milestone point. Getting to ‘net’ zero means balancing residual emissions with re-captured emissions from already emitted CO2. During the progression to 2050, reductions in emissions, including ambitious carbon capture at source, result in residual hard-to-treat emissions falling to a CCC estimate of around 130Mt CO2eq/yr.  At the transient point of balance (target 2050) the hard-to-treat emissions happen to be balanced by negative emissions.  In the decades after that negative emission rates continue to increase, not only to offset hard-to-treat emissions of all GHGs but also to draw down atmospheric CO2 to keep with a 1.5 degree temperature rise. And in the very long term some level of negative emissions will always be required, as long as any hard to treat emissions exist.


In many reports of this type, CCS enthusiasts will be accustomed to <Cntrl F> on the pdf, and finding a mention of CCS as a footnote on page 216a...  But here CCS is explicit and clear, occurring on 82 of 279 pages.  It is clearly stated that CCS is not a ‘nice to have’ option, CCS is an essential must-have. And the level of essential ambition is raised. Previously the CCC have suggested that the UK should be storing 10Mt CO2/yr by 2030. This new analysis includes the probability of creating hydrogen for heat, derived from reforming methane - so the CO2 takeoff will be larger. That means 20MtCO2 per year or more in 2030.  Can the UK achieve that? From the point of view of storage, we are already in good shape. The ETI Strategic UK storage Assessment, and the CO2Stored Web Atlas before that, identified a 70 Billion tonnes of storage capacity around the UK, 1.1 Billion tonnes of which are at a good confidence level of readiness. There is still the not trivial hurdle of further work, and assurances of quality and monitoring, to apply for a full storage licence on each candidate store.  And, because there can be a lead-time of 2 to 5 years, then starting now is not too soon, if storage operators wish to have a legally operating store by the mid 2020's. Not to mention the time gap requirement to re-purpose a transport pipe, or 3 to 5 years lead in time to design, permit and construct a new pipe for CO2

That manifests one of the weaker points in this report. The speed and comprehensiveness of construction are uniformly ambitious. Not unrealistic. But this Net Zero report implies that all Departments of Government will all be co-ordinated and achieving effectively and rapidly. Compare that to the present CCS situation, where there is a BEIS objective to demonstrate just one cluster of capture to storage operating by the late 2020's. Ready for scale-up during the 2030's ‘subject to costs’. That ambition and speed seems far too slow. In this report the CCC anticipate up to 130 Mt CO2/yr storage at the point of Net Zero in 2050. Again, not impossible. But this, like many other actions in this report, requires reliable continuity of policy, with constant effort, starting about now. The challenge is even greater for Scotland where, says the Committee, a Net Zero point can be reached by 2045. Because of the greater land area to grow domestic biomass (there is minimal biomass import allowed in this 2050 vision, so operations at Drax and other biomass plants would change their supply sources - as well as fitting BECCS, and millions of fast-growth trees and biofuel will be planted from now). And also, in Scotland, a 2045 Net Zero is possible because of the greater availability of CO2 storage. Which is good news again. Except that there is still not a credible or profitable business plan to encourage an orderly queue of investors. Which there should now be, as CCS has not been so supported, by so many, for a long time.


Capturing a UK lead


Prof. Paul Fennell, UKCCSRC Deputy Director for Carbon Capture, Professor of Clean Energy, Imperial College London

Reading through the CCC report, I was struck first by the breadth of technologies which will need to be demonstrated and the absolute necessity for CCS:

“Carbon capture and storage (CCS) in industry, with bioenergy (for GHG removal from the atmosphere), and very likely for hydrogen and electricity production. CCS is a necessity, not an option.”

Ongoing work across the UK as both part of UKCCSRC, other RCUK-funded projects, together with projects funded by the EU, is addressing how we can deploy carbon capture in each of the areas above. Demonstration of technologies in this area at scale is absolutely vital, and will involve a herculean collaborative effort for both industry and academia.

I am personally off to Lixhe in Belgium on Monday to take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the LEILAC (low emissions intensity lime and cement) project (, demonstrating at large pilot scale a cutting-edge new calcination method which produces a pure stream of CO2 for sequestration.  My group at Imperial College (in collaboration with a number of industrial companies) was involved in both developing the design (using computational fluid dynamics) and in validating that calcination would likely be fast enough in the novel technology deployed.  So… no pressure…

Another quote which attracted my eye was this one:

“There is also a range of areas in which solutions have been proposed, but innovation will be required to go beyond the reach of established technologies or methods, such as in hydrogen, heavy goods vehicles, and carbon capture and storage.”

It is clear that there is still potential for basic research, including the development of new technologies, alongside the absolutely vital support work that academia will be doing to assist in technology deployment.  Deployment support could include troubleshooting using the advanced diagnostic abilities available in universities across the UK, and further work in partnership with our friends and colleagues in the EU and further afield.  To be clear, it is absolutely necessary for rapid deployment of CCS within the UK that we retain access to the EU science programmes.

Finally, sitting back on our heels is not an option.  We cannot afford to allow other countries to steal a march on our current advantaged position in CCS research, as the quote below emphasizes:

“While technology costs can be reduced via global deployment, reductions in the cost of capital for CCS in the UK will require UK deployment.”

Perhaps the third time will be the charm for a large-scale CCS demonstration in the UK?


What does the climate need in 2051, and how can it be delivered?


Prof. Jon Gibbins, Director UKCCSRC, Professor of Power Plant Engineering and Carbon Capture, University of Sheffield

The climate doesn’t care directly about what fraction of our energy comes from renewables, what we eat for dinner or how often we take a bath.  All that the climate cares about is anthropogenic GHG emissions and in particular cumulative CO2 emissions. Estimates for CO2 and GHG emissions commensurate with a 50/50 change of staying below 1.5 degrees are cited by the Committee on Climate Change in their report, as below:

The Committee on Climate Change recommends a new emissions target for the UK, net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050, but this is only one of the two numbers of interest for 2050.  The other, which does not appear to be being discussed but is clearly shown in the graph above, is the rate at which the UK's annual CO2 emissions would probably still need to be falling, to yield net-negative emissions from 2051 onwards to the end of the century and beyond, as part of a global effort to deliver a 50/50 chance of achieving 1.5 degrees.

It might seem ungenerous to appear to ‘want’ even more, after all long term emissions rate targets have already fallen from 60% in the early 2000s to the current 80% from 2008 and perhaps to 100%. But this is not a matter of preference, it is just making an obvious interpretation based on the climate science analysis presented by the CCC.

And delivering the ability to achieve net-negative CO2 emissions from 2051 onwards does depend on decisions and actions made right now.  If, in 2021, we lock in investment into infrastructure that can, at best, only struggle to approach 100% reduction in emissions, rather than having the potential to support large amounts of net-negative emissions technologies to give net-negative emission rates, it will still be there 30 years later. The new biomass sources and other land use changes required will only have 30 years to develop from almost nothing now.  And we cannot take another ten years to reconcile policy with climate reality and still expect to deliver on time.

This need to go below net-zero CO2 emission rates means a lot of things for CCS technologies and probably even more for other aspects of the energy system and wider society. The mind-set of the ‘70s and ‘80s oil crises, where marginal increases in non-fossil energy sources were sufficient to keep oil prices within reasonable levels, must be left behind in the face of the new reality. The problem is no longer one of fossil fuel supplies limited by human political cartels, but of finite space for CO2 in the atmosphere limited by planetary physics.

The Committee on Climate Change can accurately be described as a national treasure. They give the UK a quality of climate and emissions reduction debate that is the envy of the world and, as Lord Deben’s inspirational concluding words at the report launch today noted, have helped to keep climate a widely-accepted, non-partisan priority.  The new 2050 net-zero target they recommend is necessary and inspirational for all the reasons they suggest.  But don’t forget what the figure above shows that the climate is likely to require in 2051, which is increasing net-negative national CO2, and eventually GHG, emission rates sustained well into the 22nd century.