Thought leadership

It’s time to get real about net-zero

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The failure of the Quest CCS Facility should serve as a cautionary tale to industry leaders and policymakers alike who see carbon capture as a shortcut to net-zero.

The fact that Shell’s Quest Carbon Capture and Store (CCS) Facility emits far more carbon than it stores should be sobering news. The Quest facility is the world’s largest and only CCS facility that is trialling the technology at a commercial scale, and when the project began in 2015 at Shell’s massive Scotford refinery in Canada it was heralded as the beginning of a new age of affordable hydrogen. However, according to a recent study by Global Witness, the CCS facility which promised to capture 90 per cent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) generated throughout the production of blue hydrogen is currently only extracted about 35 per cent of those GHGs. In just five years, Global Witness found that the facility had emitted 7.5 million tonnes of uncaptured carbon – and its yearly carbon footprint is the equivalent to that of 1.2 million petrol cars.

At this point, some amount of carbon capture is necessary. Even a total amnesty on the use of fossil fuels from this point onward would be insufficient to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) goal of capping global warming at 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. However, as plans are made to capture carbon it is essential that policymakers and industry leaders are realistic about their potential – and do not use promises of carbon capture to delay necessary decarbonisation.

Eliot Gillings

The Quest CCS facility’s failure to live up to its promise is only one example of an emerging trend in the fossil fuel industry. Total, for example, are attempting to develop new oilfields in Congo and promising to plant trees on an area of savannah to make up for it. Even ignoring the location of this new development (a peat bog that currently serves as one of Africa’s largest natural carbon stores) and its legality (much of the land Total proposes to develop is owned by indigenous people who have yet to be recognised by the French oil producer), there are serious questions about how effective Total’s strategy will be. Creating a forest on top of a savannah ostensibly makes sense, as trees are more effective at sequestering carbon than the vegetation that litters the Congolese savannah. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty over the impact that such a rapid change to the ecosystem will have on soil organic carbon (SOC) levels, which remove CO2 via soil carbon sequestration.

Continuing to invest in carbon capture projects and developing natural sequestration sites must be done to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5oC, but there is little room for error. Even if global warming is capped at 1.5oC, 14 per cent of the world will be exposed to a severe heatwave every 5 years. According to the IPCC, this will result in “high multiple interrelated climate risks” for “some vulnerable regions, including small islands and Least Developed Countries. ” However, if that rise jumps to 2oC, 37 per cent of people will find themselves vulnerable. Currently, 70 to 90 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are predicted to die, if temperatures reach 2oC above preindustrial levels that number will climb to 99 per cent. Currently, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) says that the UK is on track to contribute to a global temperature rise of 2.7oC by 2100.

It is imperative that the fossil fuel industry, and indeed all carbon-producing sectors, are realistic about the capabilities of carbon capture and begin to plan accordingly. It is also, however, necessary for policymakers to institute clear plans of action and create incentives for industry. Currently, the UK still has not made any commitment to creating a Carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) and though the profits of energy producers continue to rise, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent statements on the matter would seem to indicate that the UK is unlikely to initiate and significant price controls. All while, according to the CCC, the gap between the climate risk faced by the UK and its capacity to cope continues to grow.

New legislation is needed, and the Whole Industry Strategic Plan for Rail provides the perfect opportunity for policymakers to create a clear roadmap that provides industry leaders with both the clarity and incentives they need to accelerate towards net-zero. Over 27 per cent of the UK’s total emissions come from transport – and cars and taxis are responsible for 61 per cent of that total. The creation of a long-term plan for rail that focuses on both the uptake of innovation and the improvement of the passenger experience, as such, is a chance to impact emissions across the whole of transport.

While the Williams-Shapps plan has offered a vision for the future of rail that represents significant intent from the current government, the plan has failed to provide industry leaders with adequate clarity on their role in the future of GB rail. The plan also does not clarify how past errors in the creation and assignment of contracts will be avoided in a post-franchising era. Answers need to be found and delivered consistently.

The future of GB Rail, a report recently published by PPP in partnership with Hitachi Rail, Siemens Mobility, and Trainline puts forward recommendations that deal with decarbonisation, procurement, technology integration, the passenger experience. Discussing a vision for the future of rail that prioritises ease of use and the delivery of reductions in operating expenses (OPEX), “The future of GB Rail” offers insight to policymakers that makes clear both the need for a revitalised rail industry and the opportunity that revitalisation presents. Rail has the potential to get people around the UK faster, cheaper, and cleaner than any mode of transport – and will serve a crucial role in the success of any future green economy.

The future of GB Rail has been submitted to the Department for Transport’s call for evidence and is currently available for download.