Low carbon energies – are the parties doing enough?

By Jeff Chapman
April 15, 2010

Jeff Chapman- Jeff Chapman is chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Political parties publish lengthy manifestos for two reasons: because they want to be seen as credible across a range of policy issues and because they don’t expect people to look into the small print.

So it’s not hard to be unfamiliar with the policy score sheet of each party in any particular area.

But as one of many people in the UK interested in climate change, and even more specifically around carbon capture and storage, I make it my business to know how each party proposes to tackle the challenge.

For those unfamiliar with the term, carbon capture storage is part of a suite of ‘low carbon’ technologies which Governments around the world are developing to decarbonise energy production to tackle climate change.

Its central proposition is simple: through one of 3 chemical processes (pre-combustion, post combustion and oxfuel) carbon dioxide is separated from fossil fuels, captured in liquid form, transported, and buried underground (in the UK under the North Sea seabed) for safe storage.

Why is CCS important?  We generate much of our energy from fossil fuels and CCS captures up to 95 percent of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, preventing it from entering the atmosphere, and helping us meet our crucial climate change targets.

All three political parties are committed to funding CCS at an industrial scale in the UK.  The central difference however, is that whilst Labour and the Conservatives made reference in their manifestos to funding 4 CCS plants (which is a significant commitment at circa 1 billion pounds per plant), the Liberal Democrat manifesto doesn’t specify this.

Each party’s manifesto has taken pains to commit to no new coal power stations without CCS in the future.  Labour suggests they “are the only government in the world to have banned new unabated coal-fired power stations” and the Liberal Democrats have a similar pledge.

The Conservatives have publicly committed to an “Emissions Performance Standard” (as have the Liberal Democrats privately) which means coal fired power stations will not be able to operate unless their production of greenhouse gases is below a certain level – effectively meaning CCS has to be deployed on new coal generation.

There is some debate about whether such measures will work, or whether they will disincentivise industry investment into developing CCS, increasing dependence on gas fired power stations instead.  That debate will rumble on.

The parties would like to see a beefed up EU Emissions Trading Scheme – a pan-European cap and trade scheme for carbon emissions – with the Liberal Democrats committing to introduce a tighter cap on the level of permits within the scheme and the Conservatives suggesting privately they would want to see a floor price in the price of carbon within the scheme.  However there could be difficulties delivering these pledges.

What each of the parties missed, in my view, is the right scale of ambition around CCS.  The government’s own figures suggest a UK CCS industry will support 100,000 jobs and generate 6.5 billion pounds for the economy.

But this can only happen if we realise the full application of CCS, not just on coal generation, but to decarbonise gas generation, heavy industry including steel and cement and, in the future taking carbon directly out of the atmosphere through CCS with biomass.

Our view: political consensus on the importance of deploying CCS is welcome; the next step will be quickly putting major actions into the words when in government.

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