With news this week that the ice caps are melting sooner than previously predicted, the only transition is a move as quickly as possible to renewables. Who told us to rely on technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Was it not capitalists like Bill Gates? Carbon capture by 2030, they said. So, governments set their targets on the basis that technology would kick in soon enough to prevent the ice caps from melting. Politicians have swallowed the myth that carbon capture and utilisation storage (CCUS) is the answer to keeping the fossil fuel industry going and the retention of jobs in the North Sea. For the record, CCUS is not a new technology. It’s been around for 50 years, which begs the question of why the big rush to promote it now and since captured carbon has mostly been used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
Essentially, the fossil fuel industry wants to maintain its profits despite the economic and environmental costs. Enhancing oil recovery by whatever means cannot be considered a climate solution! A report from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in 2022 stated that out of 13 projects, seven have underperformed, two failed and one was mothballed. The report asks “Is CCS/CCUS a greenwash to extend the life of fossil fuel assets or a panacea to avert catastrophic climate change consequences?” COP28 provided the answer to that.
The Scottish Government’s response towards carbon capture targets
Our own Scottish government has already moved their targets for carbon capture to 2032 allocated for carbon capture 2024-25. Remember when £80 million was promised by the Scottish Government towards carbon capture? With the state of Scotland’s finances, this realistically is not going to happen any time soon. This is the result of negotiations with the UK government which has constrained the Scottish Government’s plans for a just transition under devolution.
Constraining the block grant is in fact a political decision, not an economic one. The UK government is not constrained if resources are available, since it is a currency issuer and not a currency user. If Scotland were independent and a currency issuer with its own central bank and currency – not a currency user, we would not have needed to raise taxes to fill a budget black hole. If Scotland were independent, we would be able to invest in our own country’s considerable renewable assets, instead of being reliant on foreign investment. This reliance results in much of our renewable potential fuelling the economies of other countries, rather than our own.
The powerful lobbying by polluting monopolists has coloured the Scottish government’s vision for a greener sustainable future every bit as much as the Westminster government has been tainted by greed and vested interests. It doesn’t bear thinking that the SNP party members themselves gave their ministers free rein to support CCUS defeating a party conference resolution which proposed a full-scale independent study be undertaken into the efficacy, value for money, and environmental and climate impact of CCUS.
Ironically, how many tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted by the fossil fuel industry alone is yet unknown. The International Energy Agency has already described the reduction in CO2 using this technology as an ‘illusion’. Before issuing their delayed climate plan in early 2024, the Scottish Government should examine in-depth, a report from Oxford University, the first freely accessible, overarching complete account of the costs of CCS, published in December 2023.
CCS investment versus renewables
The report highlights that the costs of CCS have not reduced over time whereas the costs of renewables such as wind, solar and batteries have reduced considerably. The costs of CCUS/CCS had been noticeably absent from the debate until this report was published. Researchers compare the costs of two CCS pathways, a high CCS and a low CCS. The high CCS pathway used in this study mitigates about half of today’s carbon emissions in 2050 using CCS and the low CCS pathway about one-tenth. Both pathways reach net zero by 2050. Researchers calculated that a low CCS pathway would be expected “to produce average savings of at least US $1tn” per annum, when compared to the high CCS pathway.
In moving forward with an investment into CCUS or any other CCS scenario, the SNP Scottish Government should take note of the costs now that these are available; something which members of their own party suggested at the party conference but was summarily dismissed. It’s not too late to back-pedal especially when budgets are tight and investment into CCUS /CCS unlikely to go ahead until after 2025.
The Future is Renewables
The reality is that oil and gas (O&G) will become a more volatile industry and consequently less profitable over time. The UK government’s commitment to squeezing every drop out of the North Sea, leaving a trail of climate destruction in its wake, is not an option if governments are serious about tackling climate change and achieving net-zero targets. As recent analysis has shown, the value of O&G companies could fall from its current valuation of $6 tn (about $18,000 per person in the US) by 25% if climate goals are achieved.
The quicker that Scotland moves to renewables the better. Independence would accelerate the process, when the current constraints of devolution and ‘sterlingisation’ would be removed and net-zero targets more achievable. If energy bills are to be lower for consumers, the feasibility of CCUS needs to be reviewed. CCUS is an energy-intensive business, which will reduce the amount of energy available to consumers and push up the cost of their energy.
Since it is not cost-effective when compared with renewables and there are no guarantees that it is an effective tool to ameliorate climate outcomes, it would make more sense to move to renewables post-haste than pour investment into an unproven technology. By all means, let’s have a real ‘Just transition’ by promoting growth in our astonishing renewables sector and transferring jobs away from the declining oil and gas sector to renewables. By creating jobs here, instead of exporting the power generated to benefit the economies of other countries, while people here suffer the destruction of landscapes by erecting pylons across prime agricultural land.
Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) currently faces a Herculean challenge to provide new and maintain or upgrade old infrastructure to accommodate the switch to using cleaner, renewable energy. Maintaining a balance between producing sustainable food sources, maintaining landscapes and rural community amenities is an unenviable task, but one which should be carefully considered if Scotland’s net-zero targets and energy and food security is to be achieved. Exporting should be a secondary consideration until pricing structures for Scottish consumers are amended to reflect Scotland as a primary producer.
Up-to-date figures are needed
I did pose this question to an SNP Minister and as is the norm, no answer was forthcoming. A Fraser of Allander report published in December 2023 uses figures from 2021. Why was this good news not public knowledge until now? The authors highlight an increase in renewable sector jobs to 47,000 compared with 27,000 the previous year, but also remark that “more robust and timely production of renewables data by the UK and/or Scottish Government would allow for more meaningful between-year and between-technology comparisons”. The Scottish Government should take note and highlight the increased job creation in renewables as a positive step to a just transition. Perhaps the next set of figures could be brought up to date for 2022/23 to encourage those looking to make the switch from oil and gas to renewables.
A future in the balance
Also, a report from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) has highlighted that green jobs also pay significantly more, stating the average wage of £42,600 is significantly above the national average which currently stands at £33,400. The report produced figures for Net Zero Gross Value Added (GVA) illustrating the contribution and the potential of Scotland’s to the economy. The net-zero economy generates £112,300 per employee compared with the national average of £64,400 generated per employee, demonstrating that the levels within the net-zero economy are high.
The conclusions of these reports should be published in the media. Why are they not? Is it too much to expect the media to extol the virtues of renewables over fossil fuels and highlight the progress being made towards decarbonisation? People, particularly young voters, are looking for signs of progress in our economy and decarbonisation. Their future is hanging in the balance.