Doubts raised over Scottish Government’s ‘speculative’ carbon capture claims

The Scottish Government has been told to clarify “where they got their numbers from” on the role that carbon capture and storage will play in the country’s path to net-zero emissions. 

In its updated Climate Change Plan, published last year, the Scottish Government claimed that 10 million tonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide (CO2) could be captured and stored by the Acorn Project in the north east of Scotland by 2030.

The Acorn Project aims to use existing oil and gas infrastructure to transport and store large quantities of CO2 under the North Sea. 

If 10MT were captured and stored by Acorn this would equate to almost a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, a huge boost to Scotland’s net-zero ambitions.

The term net-zero refers to a position in which the carbon emissions that a country or company puts into the atmosphere are balanced by those being removed, including by technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). 

But the Acorn Project’s own estimates predict that only 5 to 6MT of CO2 will be transported and stored by 2030. Critics say discrepancies in this “crucial area” could undermine confidence in Holyrood’s climate change plan.

Carbon capture plans

Climate campaigners say it is also unclear where in Scotland carbon capture will actually take place. 

Carbon capture involves removing CO2 from industrial processes like fossil fuel burning and cement production. This carbon is then transported by ship or pipeline and stored deep in underground geological formations. 

Both Acorn and the Scottish Government’s estimates are the amount of carbon that could be transported and stored off the north east coast, not what is expected to be captured in the region. 

The Scottish Government told The Ferret that carbon could also be transported and stored under the North Sea from industrial clusters in the rest of the UK and Europe which don’t have convenient CO2 storage solutions. 

Jess Cowell, of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said the Scottish Government is attempting to use “speculative” targets on technologies like CCS as a “get out of jail free card” to make its calculations add up to net-zero targets. 

“The Scottish Government must be clear about where they got their figures from on this crucial area. The discrepancies with these numbers shows just how unreliable it is to put faith in these technologies,” she added. 

However a spokesperson for the Scottish Government claimed the Acorn Project’s numbers were “conservative”. They said the project was “designed to be scalable” and had “the potential to store 10MT [of CO2] by 2030” if there is demand. 

When The Ferret asked the Scottish Government where carbon capture projects were currently planned, the only confirmed project is being developed by Acorn at the Shell St Fergus gas plant near Peterhead. 

This is expected to capture just 300,000 tonnes (0.3MT) of CO2 per year from 2025. On 16 April 2021 the oil giant, Shell, announced that it had become formal partners in the venture, along with two other energy firms, Harbour Energy and Storegga.

Scottish industry is also developing plans to implement CCS to decarbonise in line with climate targets, including the Grangemouth industrial cluster, East Lothian’s Tarmac cement plant and emitters in the north east of Scotland. 

The Scottish Government did not disclose how much carbon is expected to be captured in these areas, and by which emitters, by 2030.

Scotland needs to cut emissions fast and it is a reckless gamble to pin our hopes on unicorn technology rather than investing in renewable energy and a just transition for our workers

Mark Ruskell MP, Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, who sat on the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee, claimed the Scottish Government had “no idea” how much carbon will be captured in Scotland.

“Carbon capture and storage is an unproven technology which is being held up by fossil fuel giants so they can keep endless extraction of oil and gas. The truth is we just don’t have time to wait for workable technology if we are going to turn around the climate crisis in the few years the science tells us we have left,” Ruskell said.

“Scotland needs to cut emissions fast and it is a reckless gamble to pin our hopes on unicorn technology rather than investing in renewable energy and a just transition for our workers.”

The Scottish Government introduced a legal framework in 2019 which commits the country to reducing its net carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, and to get to net-zero by 2045. 

A report by the ECCLR committee in March 2021 said that the government’s updated Climate Change Plan “relies too heavily” on technologies like CCS to reach this net-zero goal, and lacked a contingency plan. 

The ECCLR report also questioned the claim that 25 per cent of Scotland’s carbon emissions would be eliminated by CCS by 2030, which they said lacked “viability”. 

Scottish Labour’s environment, climate change and land reform spokesperson, Sarah Boyack, said it was “vital” that figures in the Climate Change Plan are accurate, adding that “clarity” was needed on where carbon capture targets will be delivered. 

She told The Ferret: “Meeting our 2030 75 per cent reduction target also needs increased investment in community heat and power schemes.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The 5-6MT figure is the Acorn project’s conservative storage estimate based on the capacity of the first pipeline that will be reused for the transport of CO2 to the Acorn storage site. UK funding through the CCS infrastructure fund will enable the project to develop, and will provide the opportunity to scale up as demand increases.”

Photo thanks to iStock/Dave Collins.

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