Pathways to greenhouse gas removal – are we finally on track?

  • Sarah Holliday

    Sarah Holliday

    Researcher (Maternity Leave)

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09 Dec 2020

The UK Government’s 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution was recently launched by the Prime Minister with great fanfare, anticipating the National Infrastructure Strategy announced as part of the Spending Review. Both documents suggest a strong ambition to see the United Kingdom become a world leader in delivering a decarbonised future.

Many of the ambitions announced in the 10 Point Plan are ones we have also been working on and advocating for in our conversations with government departments during their Spending Review planning. From its £20 million commitment to Green Shipping, to its recent announcement of £40m to research the feasibility of space-based solar power stations, these are areas we called on the government to prioritise in The Great Innovation Challenge published in July.

One of our top recommendations for helping to reach net zero emissions was a prize for innovation in the development of greenhouse gas removal technologies, otherwise known as negative emissions technologies, on top of carbon capture and storage (CCS) approaches.

This is an area we have been exploring further with our expert partners Energy Systems Catapult in Challenge Prizes for Negative Emissions published today.

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has now announced a £70m competition to provide funding for the development of technologies that enable the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the aptly named Direct Air Capture and other Greenhouse Gas Removal technologies competition

BEIS says “the ultimate objective of this programme is to identify one or more ways in which to achieve removals at the MtCO2e scale or greater, at a cost of less than £200 per tonne CO2e removed, and undertake innovation activities that help to achieve this outcome”. It aims to “reduce the UK’s carbon emissions and the cost of decarbonisation by accelerating the commercialisation of innovative mitigation technologies and processes into the mid-2020s and 2030s.”

It is a welcome investment in the green recovery, and in solving a problem that has been hard to scale and even harder to commercialise. Negative emissions technologies like Direct Air Capture are going to require significant, long-term support by the government to deliver meaningful impact. This support for CCS, GGR and related projects has been somewhat unreliable in the last decade, with a few false starts. The 10 Point Plan and financial investment would seem to suggest that long-term commitment now exists, and the announcement of an innovation competition is one we greatly welcome.

Nesta Challenges was established in 2012 by Nesta and the Cameron government to grow and cement the UK’s knowledge and use of prizes. Since then, more than 10,000 innovators have engaged in our challenges. Challenge Prizes support and reward the development of solutions that are proven to solve a problem, allowing unknown, untested and left-field innovators to compete on a level playing field with established incumbents. 

This open innovation process allows many approaches and many ideas from diverse perspectives to crowd in on a problem with multiple solutions coming through, the best of which wins the prize. We sincerely hope that the new CCS competition will encourage a broad spectrum of innovators so that the UK government’s investment results in the most effective solutions, not simply the first.

The catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis are becoming more apparent with each passing year, with the scale of threat to both people and planet having been too long underestimated. Negative emissions technologies have an important and necessary role to play in enabling us to reach net zero on the timescale needed to avoid the worst case scenarios. To achieve this, we need to incentivise both social and technological innovation, with bold funding and ambitious goals, to quickly attract diverse talent and further investment in these approaches. 

Greenhouse gas removal projects are expensive. They will need concerted government funding to have impact. The market incentive for using these technologies is still limited, and will require firm international regulation to ensure that the big emitters deploy these solutions alongside emissions reductions – something we hope the UK Government will pursue when Britain hosts COP26 next year. 

This week’s announcements, particularly those which are backed up by adequate scales of  investment, are welcome. We stand ready to support the national mission to achieve net zero with our expertise and knowledge, and look forward to the rapid development and adoption of game-changing innovations that can help us steward our planet for future generations.

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