Negative emissions technologies are critical for the earth’s climate and hitting net zero in the UK, argues Drax CEO Will Gardiner
This year has been unlike any in recent memory. Global agendas have understandably fallen to the wayside as countries, companies and individuals respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
We are all well aware the ongoing need for extra caution, cooperation and resilience in the face of this global crisis. But it's vital we don't lose sight of long-term climate and energy challenges and the vital sustainability targets that must solve them.
In the short term, the lockdowns impacting billions of people have marked a step change for global decarbonisation. In the first months of the crisis alone, China reported a 25 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. A global 5-10 per cent drop is predicted by the end of the year. But we cannot confuse temporary relief with systemic progress. Work remains to be done.
Here in the UK we have been making strong headway in our progress towards realising a decarbonised future. In 2019, the government upgraded its target of an 80 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions from 1990 figures by 2050, to 100 per cent - a fully net zero emissions vision of the future. It serves as a legally binding requirement for the UK to fulfil its role in helping to slow the effects of climate change.
There is still a long way to go, but progress so far has been steady. In 2019, the UK reported greenhouse gas emissions that were provisionally 45.2 per cent lower than in 1990, and 3.6 per cent lower than in the previous year, according to government statistics.
Covid-19 should not cause us to stumble in that mission, but rather carry on with renewed vigour and determination.
Going net negative
Getting to net zero by 2050 will require a combination of technologies, innovative thinking and new approaches - there is no single magic bullet to remove all emissions from the global economy. It is also apparent that in the time frames required to prevent catastrophic climate change not all sectors will be able to achieve overall zero emissions. For example, it will be virtually impossible to remove all CO2 emissions from vital industries such as aviation or agriculture.
However, this means that other areas of the economy, such as electricity generation, will have to overcompensate - with net negative emissions.
Negative emissions technologies like those being pioneered at Drax are specifically designed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
This might sound ambitious, but it is built upon proven technology, and it is ready to be deployed to put carbon back where it belongs.
The role of BECCS in hitting energy targets
Much - indeed most - of the future energy makeup of the UK will be provided by wind and solar - up to 85 per cent. However, of the remaining 15 per cent, carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technology will be an essential component of achieving net zero emissions. The Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) most recent progress report is stronger than ever in its stance on this, identifying the technology as "a necessity, not an option".
However, more powerful is when CCUS is combined with biomass to deliver bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which can create negative emissions.
BECCS replaces the fossil fuels used in processes such as power generation with biomass grown in sustainable forests. This organic matter has already absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere before it is turned into fuel - making the process of generating power using it carbon neutral. When carbon capture is introduced, the CO2 that forests have absorbed from the atmosphere is then captured and stored permanently underground - making the process carbon negative.
The importance of BECCS has been reiterated in National Grid's 2020 Future Energy Scenarios (FES) report, where it is identified as a critical component in carbon reduction strategies. In fact, the report estimates BECCS has the potential to generate 62 million tonnes of negative carbon emissions annually by 2050. It suggests that while there is still a need for massive decarbonisation across all aspects of the economy BECCS can make a significant impact.
On top of that, BECCS can also be a vital enabling component of other low-carbon energy alternatives, such as hydrogen - itself estimated to be able to supply between 21 per cent and 59 per cent of 2050 net zero end-user energy needs, according to FES.
How Drax is helping
At Drax, we are uniquely placed to rise to these opportunities, as the world's largest biomass power generator and a key part of the Zero Carbon Humber industrial cluster.
Drax's capability to deploy BECCS at scale well before the end of this decade means the UK could make a global statement on both its commitment, and its ability, to pursue and achieve its CO2 reduction goals, limiting the climate crisis. With the right policies and investment framework, our pilot projects of today with C-Capture and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) can become tomorrow's world-leading force for CCUS innovation. Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire, rooted in its culture of on-time, on-budget world-first major infrastructure projects, can enable UK leadership on negative emissions.
And new developments are emerging all the time through our partnerships with industry and academia - at the beginning of July, we were proud to help launch a carbon recycling project - REACT-FIRST - that uses microbes to convert CO2 into valuable proteins. Another cleantech partnership explores the potential for using captured CO2 to displace oil in the production of plastic products, using Econic's pioneering catalyst technology. The Macclesfield company's work our engineers are supporting could save as much as four million petrol cars' CO2 per year in the automotive market alone.
Not only will these CCUS innovations help the UK meet its commitments across multiple sectors of the economy - but they can help the country pursue wider economic goals, create jobs and sustain regional development and communities around the UK.
These green jobs will be vital for a working population still suffering the effects of mass furloughing and recession. A recent CCC report highlights research from the 2009 global recession that found green stimulus packages, focused on sustainable investments, can create a higher number of jobs against traditional stimulus, and lead to long term cost savings.
Drax is proud to be playing its part in both the UK's net zero strategy, and its economic recovery from Covid-19. But even more ambitious plans are needed if the UK is to meet its targets and assert its position as a world energy leader. Through commitment to sustainable innovation we can deliver a green recovery that creates the jobs and lays the foundations for modern, clean growth industries that will endure through the 21st century, and beyond.
Through our actions today we can create the opportunity to export our knowledge and skills and, ultimately, play a central role in addressing the climate emergency and building a sustainable future for the world.
Will Gardiner is CEO at Drax Group