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Worker turning valve of gas fired power station
© Monty Rakusen/Corbis
10 February 2016 0:01

Gas without carbon capture puts UK climate goals at risk, say MPs

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

10.02.2016 | 12:01am
UK policyGas without carbon capture puts UK climate goals at risk, say MPs

The UK government is putting climate targets at risk by pushing for more gas while scrapping support for carbon capture and storage (CCS), according to MPs.

A House of Commons Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee report says ending support for CCS seems to be in “direct contradiction” with the government’s renewed focus on gas. It adds that pursuing gas “cannot get the UK to its 2030 and 2050 carbon targets without CCS”.

Carbon Brief sums up the report, which echoes other recent findings on CCS and carbon budgets. 

Dash for gas

Amber Rudd, the UK’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, has put heavy emphasis on securing new gas generation and a UK shale gas industry. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) expects 27 gigawatts (GW) of new gas capacity to be built over the next 20 years, against 32GW operating today.

In the short term, some new gas capacity will be needed to secure electricity supplies as the UK phases out coal, though there is disagreement over the quantity needed. Bizarrely, however, Rudd has referred to gas as “low carbon”, despite it being a fossil fuel.

The committee notes that each unit of electricity from gas emits 400 grammes of CO2, far above the 2030 target of 100gCO2/kWh recommended by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). CCS is the “only practicable way to close this gap”, the MPs say.

Yet the government has recently pulled its £1bn CCS commercialisation scheme, a move the MPs call “disappointing”. This and other recent policy changes “are damaging investor confidence in the UK energy sector”, the committee adds.

Chris Littlecott, head of fossil fuel transition at thinktank E3G, says in a statement:

“Amber Rudd’s ‘energy reset’ speech in November was aimed at securing massive investment in new gas power plants. But just one week later the Treasury’s CCS cuts pulled the rug from underneath this strategy. Government needs to respond with a credible CCS plan, or it will see the investment gap continue to widen.”

According to the MPs, the decision on CCS “seems to be in direct contradiction with the direction of energy policy”. The report says:

“With gas and without CCS, we will not remain on the least cost path to our statutory decarbonisation target. If government is still committed to its decarbonisation targets, it cannot afford to sit back and simply wait and see if CCS will be deployed at the moment when it is needed.”

The UK now needs a clear CCS strategy, the MPs say, setting out when the government expects CCS to be deployed and in what quantity. The government should publish this by summer 2016, they add. Energy minister Andrea Leadsom recently rejected this idea, calling a CCS strategy “unnecessary”.

Angus MacNeil MP, chair of the ECC Committee, says in a statement:  

“If we don’t invest in the infrastructure needed for carbon capture and storage technology now, it could be much more expensive to meet our climate change targets in the future. Gas-fired power stations pump out less carbon dioxide than ones burning coal, but they are still too polluting.”

Dr Luke Warren, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, says in a statement:

“The spending review decision to withdraw funding for CCS has had an extremely negative impact on the industry. What may have seemed like a good short-term saving risks loading significant costs onto the UK economy in the longer-term as the cost of meeting decarbonisation goals will increase substantially if CCS is not available.”

Need for CCS

The committee is far from alone on stressing the need for CCS. Successive governments have pursued CCS competitions, commercialisation schemes and projects for over a decade.

In 2014, prime minister David Cameron said CCS was “absolutely crucial if we are going to decarbonise effectively”. The 2015 Conservative manifesto promised £1bn for CCS.

The Committee on Climate Change says CCS will be “vital” to meeting longer-term climate goals and that the alternatives would be “substantially more expensive”. Matthew Bell, the CCC’s chief executive, explained the reasons for this view in an in-depth interview with Carbon Brief last week.

Bell said:

“The thing with CCS is that it opens up a whole range of options, whether it is the continued ability to use gas through the 2030s and the 2040s, whether it is the continued ability of the UK to host heavy industry, energy intensive and carbon intensive industry, whether it is the continued ability to continue to heat, using gas, or to in fact use biomass consistently going forward and how that contributes to carbon budgets. CCS provides an option on all of these things.”

Last September, an industry-backed report said CCS was “essential” for a climate-friendly UK shale gas industry and some estimates suggest decarbonising without CCS would be substantially more expensive.

Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), says in a statement:

“The lack of an active CCS programme makes UK energy policy look incoherent. Given that the government wishes to replace coal-fired power with gas as part of its emissions reduction plans, significant CCS deployment will be increasingly essential. Otherwise, gas demand is likely to have to fall sharply from the mid-2020s onwards.”

Watson told Carbon Brief last year:

“A more substantial long-term role for gas will depend heavily on the successful commercialisation of carbon capture and storage technologies.”

Later this month, UKERC will publish a report on the future of gas in the UK. This spring, the CCC will report on whether a UK shale gas industry is compatible with legally-binding carbon targets.

Paris context

The government’s enthusiasm for gas needs to be seen in the context of the December Paris climate agreement, which sets a net-zero global emissions goal for the second half of the century.

Prof Stuart Haszeldine, professor of CCS at the University of Edinburgh, says in a statement:

“Protecting the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans means taking carbon emissions to zero. The UK is a country that plans to reduce carbon emissions to zero by burning more carbon as gas.”

The UK also has its own, legally-binding climate target of an 80% cut on 1990 emissions by 2050.

The UK’s fifth carbon budget for 2028-2032 has to be set in law by the end of June. It would be hard to justify watering down the CCC’s recommended target, given its post-Paris advice that the suggested goal is a “minimum”.

A DECC spokesperson says in a statement:

 We haven’t closed the door to CCS technology in the UK, but as part of our ongoing work to get Britain’s finances back on track, we have had to take difficult decisions to control Government spending. CCS should come down in cost and we are considering the role that it could play in the long-term decarbonisation of the UK. We are committed to meeting our climate change targets in a way that is affordable and provides secure energy to our families and businesses.

What role does the government expect CCS to play in the UK’s approach to meeting those targets? We will have to wait and see.

Main image: Worker turning a valve of gas fired power station, 11 Feb 2015.
Sharelines from this story
  • Gas without carbon capture puts UK climate goals at risk, say MPs #CCS
  • A House of Commons ECC Committee report says ending support for CCS seems to be in "direct contradiction" with the government's renewed focus on gas. Carbon Brief sums up the report.
  • Philip Haddad

    People should recognize that fossil fuels are burned solely to produce heat and that the CO2 is a by-product with much less significance toward global warming than the heat emission. Heat emissions from the documented consumption of fossil and nuclear energy are more than four times the amount that can be attributed to the rise in air temperature, not even counting flaring of gas nor forest fires etc. CO2 has gotten a bad rap because the Kyoto scientists assumed that the correlation of temperature and CO2 verified the expected notion that CO2 would ultimately cause global warming. I dare say they totally overlooked or disregarded the fact that the heat alone was more than enough to raise temperatures. Since then everybody jumped on board to pillory CO2. Ocean “acidification” is more likely caused by the acid rain from the burning of 2000 million tons a year of coal containing ~1% sulfur,(equivalent to 60 million tons a year of sulfuric acid. CCS is one of the most foolish proposals in removing a beneficial gas and at great cost. CO2 is just the indicator that fossil fuels are emitting heat. When fossil and nuclear are replaced with renewable sources CO2 will help to reduce temperature by absorbing 4800 btus of solar energy per pound of CO2 converted by photosynthesis to crops and trees that otherwise would become heat. Let’s not let the Paris accord lead us like sheep into overreacting and thinking that CO2 from fermentation processes, or released from soil as temperature rises has the same significance as that from fossil fuels, because no heat is released. Methane is regarded as much worse than CO2, but CO2 is probably only 5-10 percent as bad as has been broadcast. During the past century annual energy consumption has increased 20-fold (read: heat emissions) and this heat is being emitted below the same greenhouse blanket that retards the loss of solar heat. The geothermal heat flow of 44 terawatts cannot be dissipated if the annual temperature rise is greater than ~0.01*F (dt=Q/UA and U is assumed to be 2 BTU/hr-sq.ft.*F in still air). This buildup of heat has been going on for almost a century raising ocean temperatures. I apologize for the length but there is more that needs to be said.

  • PhilJames

    Important to remember it’s not just the amount of gas power stations we have but the amount we use them. If renewables continue to reduce in cost then an alternative to mainstream scenarios to 2030 which include CCS would be to have more renewable generation backed up with unabated gas running at lower capacity factors (also maybe powered with some green gas from anaerobic digestion).

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