Carbon capture: the unsung hero on the route to net zero

Date Published

09/06/2021

Reading time

4 mins read

Author

Chris Cartwright

To mitigate climate emergency, there is a global race to achieve carbon neutrality.

Since 2008, with the introduction of the Climate Change Act, the UK Government has been working to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was asked to advise on a new target to prevent global warming rising above 1.5 degrees which the UN described as a ‘catastrophic disaster’. Consequently, in June 2019, the UK was the first major economy to commit to ‘net zero emissions’ by 2050.

To achieve this, the UK will need to both reduce the amount of carbon it emits and remove some carbon that already exists. A lot of attention has, rightly so, been turned to the former but not enough has been paid, especially on an individual level, to the latter. Government, businesses, and individuals are working to revolutionise power, electrify transport, and decarbonise heat, currently the three main sources (at both an individual and industrial level) of carbon emissions. But the clue to ‘net zero’ is in the name we are unlikely to ever be able to stop creating carbon, and certainly not by 2050, so we must remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Carbon capture: the big picture

The UK produces more than 300 million tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) each year, and while greenhouse gas emissions were almost 50% lower in 2020 than they were in 1990, there is still plenty of work to do.

Industries which emit a large amount of CO2 have already put some systems in place to capture and store their carbon as of 2019, there were 17 operating ‘Carbon Capture & Storage’ (CSS) projects in the world, capturing 31.5 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, of which 3.7 is stored geologically. These include post-combustion, Oxyfuel, and pre-combustion techniques.

None of these are providing adequate solutions for big businesses, so the race is on to find a carbon capture method which is not just viable, but profitable. In February 2021, Tesla co-founder Elon Musk offered a $100m (£73m) fund for inventions that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or oceans. In his words, he wants to build teams that ‘will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level’, in an ambition to achieve ’carbon negativity, not neutrality’. The competition is expected to last four years.

The role of the individual: organic solutions

But not all carbon capture solutions need to cost millions and be limited to big companies or start-up founders. There are natural, organic, and feasible ways to capture carbon and in fact, around half of the excess carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere by human activity is ‘drawn down’ again by natural processes: half by land-based processes mainly plants and half by the oceans .

At an individual level, the simplest solution lies in trees both planting more, and cutting down fewer. Investing in trees is a good first step, especially orchard trees, or perennial plants which offer ground-cover (meaning they protect the carbon in the soil and stop it being oxidised by cultivation). The infamous millennial thirst for house plants could, in fact, go some way to helping reduce CO2 levels, and in densely populated areas even window boxes and herb gardens can play their part. We should see a further boost to tree building later in 2021 too. The Queen’s platinum jubilee is being celebrated by a unique UK-wide tree planting initiative called The Queen's Green Canopy (QGC), and The Woodland Trust is giving away three million saplings to support the project. For those with space, plants aren’t the only option. Ponds can absorb more carbon than woodland, and are also biodiversity hotspots and can act as flood protection.

There are also consumer behaviours which are vital to reducing our carbon output, like being conservative with water use, using recycled/ grey water to water plants, and installing draft excluders rather than relying on central heating.

Consumer activism is important too. Whether that’s not buying shares in companies which are neglecting their net zero duties or voting in AGMs with climate change on the agenda.

The role of utilities companies

Utility providers have an important role to play in the road to net zero, though they are often better equipped to engage in the areas which reduce carbon (revolutionising power, electrifying transport, and decarbonising heat) than in capturing it. In terms of carbon capture, transparency with consumers is key utilities companies must consider each element of their supply chain, where power is coming from, and what is being offset or captured on creation.

The role of the Government

In 2018, the Government offered up to £24m of grant funding to research projects which captured carbon dioxide, with seven projects taking part in the programme. However, there is a risk that in trying to find the Big Solution, the Government fails to adequately encourage carbon reduction and the natural solutions to carbon capture.

Crucially, all roads to net zero lead to the same destination. That is, a focus on electrifying transport should both reduce the amount of CO2 pumped out by diesel and petrol vehicles, but also an increase in alternative transport methods (be they traditional bicycles, e-scooters, or public transport) should reduce the need for as much front-of-home parking, creating more room for plants and ponds.

Conclusion

There is a lot of work to do to hit the UK’s net zero goal by 2050. At Capita, we’re working to help utilities companies and individuals understand the extent of what’s needed, whether that be in heat, power, transport, or the world of carbon capture. Of course, carbon dioxide isn’t even the only greenhouse gas we need to worry about methane and nitrous oxide both pose their own problems too.

Fundamentally, it won’t work until it all works. Technology which solves carbon capture is important, but it doesn’t mean we can take our foot off the metaphorical (and carbon-neutral) gas for reduction there is no ‘get out of jail free’ card here.

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Written by

Chris Cartwright

Chris Cartwright

Critical Infrastructure Market leader

Chris is a Senior Executive with over 20 years’ experience in Energy/ Utilities/ Infrastructure and Consulting. Chris is currently a Market Sector Leader and Head of Critical Infrastructure at Capita Consulting. Chris is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow with the Institution of Engineering and Technology and is currently the chair of the Digital Sector Executive panel.

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