International CCUS conference in Edinburgh: Just do it!

Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of International Energy Agency has stated that “Without CCUS as part of the solution, reaching our international climate goals is practically impossible”. To many, this is worrying as CCUS is not currently regarded as an affordable or commercial option.

It is therefore timely that the UK has announced that its first carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) project will be up and running by the mid 2020s. The “Accelerating CCUS” Conference in Edinburgh provided the diplomatic launch of this project but also hosted a meeting of over 200 international experts to discuss just how practical it is to expect CCUS to be part of necessary and achievable global climate goals.

The UK government’s plan includes decarbonisation of industrial sites, as well as work to identify suitable national utilisation and storage options.

To some extent, the wealth of expert speakers, including representatives from Shell, Drax, Exxon Mobil, Sasol and Boundary Dam (the first full scale coal-CCUS project in the world) were preaching to the choir. I don’t believe anyone in the audience disagreed with the fact that CCUS is necessary to ensure anywhere near a 1.5 degree limit on global temperature rises. However, there was perhaps some debate as to which approaches would work best. The one unanimous opinion was that application of CCUS technologies had to start now and that deployment would need to be at an impressive rate.

The conference included talks from successful CCUS projects around the world. Boundary Dam reported on their continued success with CO2 capture and emphasised that capital costs for CO2 capture at a similar plant built now would be 67% lower than for the original. There are 16 pilot scale CO2 projects in China, with more planned. Some may expect China to lead in CCUS since prices for CO2 capture are lower – £20/t in China compared to £35/t in the UK. But this is still regarded, by China at least, as costly. There is no arguing that CO2 extraction from air, as performed by companies like Climeworks, is prohibitively expensive at $600/t, but, combined with cheap power such as geothermal or solar, and with potential income from sales of CO2 to agricultural markets, the balance sheet does level off a bit. However, perhaps the projects with the most potential for achieving actual reductions in global emissions are those which combine biomass combustion with CCUS. This is being proposed at Drax in the UK, where they predict a significant amount of negative CO2 emissions, if they can scale up the pilot process to a whole unit by 2025. This will be a vital part of a UK government initiative which, although not announced yet, hints at the UK committing to becoming at least carbon neutral within a few decades.

As always, there is the question of cost and efficacy. Surely spending money in developing Asia will be more effective at reducing emissions than spending the same money in Europe? That may be true, but there are wider issues to consider. The Centre for Environmental Policy ran a side meeting in Edinburgh which looked at the macroeconomic case for CCUS in the UK and elsewhere. For example, moving the German cement industry to China would allow Germany to achieve its climate goals far sooner and at lower cost. However, emissions from an equivalent sized cement industry in China could result in significantly higher emissions overall. Further, the loss of workforce in Germany has wider implications. In many western countries, one specialised job in an industry such as cement or oil and gas actually results in a further 10 jobs being created in domestic supply and support. And so the loss of employment could have wider implications. The UNFCCC actually includes terms on this, requiring “just transition of the workforce”. And so, the UK announcement to invest in skills and technologies at home in the UK is a pragmatic approach to reducing emissions. It will also lead to the potential emergence of a new UK-based skill-set which could be marketed elsewhere.

The one question which arose over and over again during the panel sessions and open debate was “how do we make this happen NOW?”

Many called for increased investment from governments whilst other supported legislative action. However, the overall feeling was perhaps summed up by the “Carbon Wrangler” himself, Julio Friedman, who stated that we, as an industry, needed to take a “Nike approach”, citing the sports company’s tag line – “Just do it!”