Bioenergy with Carbon Capture: The Key to UK Decarbonisation?

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Does Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) hold the key to the UK's ambitious decarbonisation targets?

As awareness of the impacts of climate change continues to grow, and the tone of climate activists worldwide becomes increasingly panic-stricken, governments are starting to introduce radical targets in order to counteract the impacts of climate change. Although the 2016 Paris Agreement saw a worldwide commitment to limiting global temperature rise, its lack of binding targets with regard to greenhouse gas emissions has led governments to set their own.

Among the most ambitious of those targets has been the UK’s: a pledge to reduce the UK’s emissions to “net zero” by 2050. If this target is reached, the UK will not be contributing a net increase in atmospheric carbon year-on-year.

Net-Zero: An Impossible Goal?

Achieving this goal is inherently difficult: decarbonisation is the focus of intensive research and development efforts, in order to make technology both viable and affordable, but in many cases the technology is already there, it just needs political support to stimulate uptake. This can be seen in practice by comparing the UK’s transport and energy generation sectors. In the energy sector, financial support for renewable generation is widely available, and there has been a significant policy push to deploy renewable energy more widely. This has resulted in a 60% drop in emissions from the energy sector between 1990 and 2017. Contrast this with the transport sector, where, even though financial support is available for biofuels, wider deployment has been limited as a result of both technical and political barriers (such as blend limits and feedstock availability). Duly, the transport sector has only delivered a 2% reduction in emissions over the same time period, significantly lagging behind all other sectors.

Totally zero emissions is, however, not going to be possible just by cutting emissions from all sectors, as zero-emissions options aren’t feasible everywhere. Energy- (particularly heat-) intensive industrial processes are always going to require heat through burning of fuel (be it fossil fuels or biomass), and incineration remains the most viable non-landfill solution for dealing with mixed non-recyclable waste, to name but two examples.

This is where the key stipulation of net zero emissions comes into play – the UK is aiming to account for all of these unavoidable emissions by actively reducing atmospheric carbon – i.e. preventing those emissions from ever reaching the atmosphere. Once again, the technology to achieve this does already exist: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Properly implemented, this technology can reduce the effective emissions from emitting processes to relevantly low levels.

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This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

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