CCS could have a crucial role to play in the UK's low carbon ecomomy, but should the government be gambling on its effectiveness?
For a while now I've been searching for the best analogy for summing up the startling extent to which the UK's low carbon strategy rests on as yet untested carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. And finally I think I've found it, CCS is like those miracle pills that periodically get reported on the front page of the Daily Mail or the Express.
You know the sort of thing, those cures the promise to one day solve cancer or obesity or the common cold that are hailed as a "miracle breakthrough" on the front page before being illustrated on page 3 by some unfortunate yet still photogenic patient who could benefit from the treatment if only it comes in time.
The parallels with CCS are obvious. These reports are usually based on some encouraging development made by a university or drugs company and as such are broadly accurate, but they tend to underplay the huge amount of additional testing and development that will be required before the drugs can be widely used, just as they tend to dodge questions about the potential costs or side effects. They also tend to have the effect of reassuring people that a miracle cure is on the horizon. "Don't worry about smoking, or eating too much, or sneezing on people," goes the underlying message. "This pill could one day solve your problems."
CCS is the miracle pill for the UK's energy system. The science and engineering is sound and it is increasingly clear that CCS can work, just don't ask too many questions about the cost, the timelines, the risk of side effects, and what happens if it doesn't prove quite as effective as hoped.
This is not to suggest we should not be investing heavily in accelerating the development of CCS – we absolutely should. At both a national and international level CCS could play a hugely important role in curbing carbon emissions, particularly from coal-reliant economies such as China, the US and Poland. There is a strong environmental and economic case for the UK to try to deploy large-scale CCS technologies as soon as possible, and as the National Audit Office pointed out last week it is little short of a disgrace that plans for a £1bn demonstration project have been subject to years of delays. Early trials suggest the technology could work at large scale and experts remain convinced captured carbon can be stored safely underground, even if major concerns remain about the economics of the technology.
We should be hoping and praying, not to mention investing heavily in R&D, to make sure the CCS miracle comes off, just as we should remain optimistic that those scientists working to cure humanity's worst medical crises are successful.
But there is a difference between optimism and recklessness, and this is where the government's reliance on CCS becomes so concerning.
It does not attract much comment, but virtually every single debate surrounding the UK's energy policy is influenced to a large extent by the role of CCS. The government's stated energy plans require significant CCS capabilities to be in place by 2030, while the "dash for gas" heralded this weekend by the government also raises the prospect that long-term carbon targets can only be met with the deployment of CCS on fossil-fired plants.
As both the government's stated goal of deploying coal-fired power stations with CCS and the crazy decision to allow new gas fired power plants to operate without CCS through to 2045 makes clear, the UK is locking itself into high carbon energy infrastructure (relative to necessary emissions reductions) that can only be made low carbon through the deployment of a technology that still has not been tested at scale.
Similarly, the increasingly ill-tempered row over whether or not the UK should invest in a new fleet of nuclear reactors is shaped to a large extent by whether or not CCS can be deployed over the next 20 years. As pro-nuclear advocates argue, without CCS it will be very difficult to find a low carbon, large-scale base-load power supply capable of managing the increasing levels of intermittent renewable energy that will come online.
Moreover, even if the technology works, and let's all hope that it does, the government will need to find a mechanism that encourages or forces energy firms to fit CCS to polluting power plants. Given this weekend's assurance that plants can continue to emit at a rate of 450g/kWh through to 2045 this means that if too many gas-fired plants are built for the UK to remain within its carbon targets the government will either have to deliver a carbon price so high it makes it uneconomic to operate plants without CCS or go back on its word and tighten a standard it has said will remain in place until nearly the middle of the century.
The government should continue to pursue plans for deploying CCS in the UK, and it can start by finally awarding the £1bn of demonstration funding that has been promised since before the last election and providing details on how to support further demonstration projects covering gas as well as coal.
But if it is to retain any environmental credibility it must also explain what happens if the technology does not prove economic or effective, just as it needs to explain what happens if the new generation of gas-fired power stations it tacitly approved over the weekend undermine efforts to meet binding carbon targets.
Without such assurances our energy system risks ending up like those gullible readers who order another box of doughnuts, safe in the apparent knowledge that the miracle diet pill the headlines promised is just around the corner.