Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
“But we’re giving £1 billion to Carbon Capture and Storage!” My best friend in Durham used to work in renewable energy research. And she’s not exactly a Tory. Over the past few years, therefore, this one Conservative promise has represented a happy spike of agreement between us.
Gordon Brown made the original commitment to CCS – the proposal for underground storage of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel power stations – back in 2007. The Coalition, and the present Government, have followed suit. Notoriously expensive to kick-start, and vulnerable to setbacks, a competition process to install the first CCS system was, last week, finally nearing completion here in the UK, where we’ve been at the forefront of EU efforts to develop technology.
But last Wednesday, I received an angry text from my friend. The Department of Energy and Climate Change had suddenly announced, several hours after the Autumn Statement, that the manifesto pledge commitment had been cut. This came as a surprise. Jon Gluyas, Durham University’s Professor of CCS & Geo-Energy, told me that:
“Cancellation of the £1 billion of support for the Carbon Capture and Storage demonstration competition on the eve of both the award of the funding (after at least five years of expenditure, work, and planning), and also on the eve of the Paris climate talks is a most bizarre and hazardous decision. The demonstration project, though small in comparison with the national or global emissions problem, had the very real promise of changing global habits, so that we capture and bury our waste carbon dioxide, rather than emitting it to the atmosphere with the resultant devastation that it is causing. By cancelling the project, we are abdicating from global leadership.”
To many, this U-turn typifies the Conservative position: that, in their view, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to consider the little green tree an appropriate talisman. Of course, it’s more than one party’s policy failing: the environment has been allowed to be hijacked by single-issue types and parties, who play to polarised sensationalism. It’s the wheatgrass-shot-drinking hippy hipsters against the roadkill-eating oil-slugging greasy barons.
Yet regardless of unhelpful behaviour on the extremes of the argument, there is overwhelming evidence in favour of one side. As the New Scientist recently put it: “By now, most reasonable people understand that they have been burning too much carbon. Most of these people are still burning too much carbon.” In the run-up to the election, I took part in a panel debate at York University alongside other Conservative candidates, and was disturbed to learn that the rest of them were (to varying degrees) climate change deniers. The term ‘denier’ can be controversial, but in this case, surely, it’s fitting.
OK, polls suggest their views aren’t unusual. But we wouldn’t look to the general public for analysis of cancer research or space travel, would we? Scientifically, the case for anthropogenic climate change is so well supported – even by those who disagree with how quickly it’s happening – that I’m not going to use this piece to argue it’s real. (Do feel free to stop reading, if you want, though.)
So we agree that the world is addicted to carbon, and that we want a way out. Well, collaboration is crucial. The main aim of this week’s Paris summit – to set a global limit for temperature increases linked to emissions – seems laudable. However, whilst percentage-based goals can be useful, they are easily skewed, and aren’t sufficient. (After all, this isn’t linear. Two per cent might represent the most achievable, least bad scenario to prevent otherwise almost certain catastrophes, but an upsurge of sea acidity or methane hydrates releases could still have disastrous effects, for instance.)
How, therefore – as a nation – can we decrease our reliance on carbon? Obvious practical options include maximising our use of renewables; restoring and building nuclear facilities; reducing carbon waste; putting a higher price on carbon; subsidising renewables, to make reliance less economical; and investing in science to encourage fledgling and, as yet, undreamed of innovations.
We need a mix of these. And a mix within the mix. Those touting one renewable over another are missing the point: for now, we need a diverse energy mix. No single renewable comes near to offering a secure and plentiful solution. And we should be aware that carbon is not going anywhere. If we cut all fossil fuel electricity generation, industry would still produce CO2. CCS seems realistic in this sense: it accepts our failings, and works with them. Unsurprisingly, the widespread use of CCS is often assumed in model suggestions for the future the widespread use of CCS is often assumed in model suggestions for the future avoidance of climate chance.
There’s a strong economic argument, too. Not simply that global warming will cost vastly more to confront in the future. Or that carbon’s current affordability depends on politically-driven oil prices, and easy access to a finite resource. Renouncing CCS at this late stage removes the hope of jobs and knock-on benefits for the local economy in places such as Peterhead. The Government may suggest that further private investment is the answer, but uncertainty and the lack of comprehensive planning is making this unlikely. It’s also causing doubt for other innovative projects, such as the tidal lagoon in the Severn.
American approaches to climate change have wavered since the Senate was angered by Kyoto; UK policy is, increasingly, exuding a similar atmosphere. Amber Rudd has set her sights on the essential – but not unrelated – issue of energy security. And while she talked of hopes for the Paris summit, while giving evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, she affirmed that consumers and their bills had to be her priority.
However, Gluyas says that the cancellation of CCS funding was:
“Bizarre – because captured carbon dioxide could help us recover both oil and gas from the UK continental shelf which will be left behind, and yet we are in an energy supply crisis. Enhanced oil and gas using CO2 is a close to carbon-neutral technology, and would allow humankind to wean off hydrocarbons while developing long-term renewable solutions. Coupling the cancellation of funding for the demonstration project with the abject failure of successive governments to properly address the UK’s energy security issue leaves us on the brink of winter blackouts and potential social unrest.’
The environment has too often been ignored by the centre-right (Roger Scruton being an exception). Even without current distractions, to class it as a niche area is vacuous. Of course budgeting is about priorities; defence is more important than ever. And I don’t have time for the idea that, as some would have it, “there’s no point in fighting terrorism, because we’ll all burn up in a couple of decades if global warming isn’t our sole focus”: that’s poor thinking, and impractical, for many reasons.
But CCS represents infrastructure commitment of the most sensible kind – innovative, forward-looking, world-leading, ethically sound, and much-needed. Last week’s decision seems short-termist and wrong.