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Reliance on untested climate change technologies fuels concerns

3 min read

Some MPs and experts have expressed concern that the government’s reliance on Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs), which aim to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, could jeopardise its climate targets and may even allow heavy industry to avoid cutting emissions as fast as they should.

At COP26 in November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned it was “one minute to midnight” to prevent climate catastrophe, and called on the world to act. In an effort to lead the way, the Conservative government has pledged to reach so-called net-zero by 2050, using a strategy that combines targets for emissions reductions with new technologies that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as carbon capture.

However, some MPs and sector experts have warned that allowing emitters--particularly industries that produce a large amount of greenhouse gases --to rely on the use of promising but as yet untested and unproven NETs to achieve their climate goals could have unintended consequences and perhaps even prove counterproductive.

“The government is willing to play chicken with climate catastrophe for our children,” Catriona McKinnon, a Professor of Political Theory and climate ethics expert at the University of Exeter, told The House.

The government policy on NET’s was “reckless and short-sighted,” she said, adding that the speculative new technologies would first require support for research and development and a rollout that did not incentivise emitters to continue business-as-usual and “trash nature.”

The cross-party parliamentary Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has also voiced worries about the issue. Following an inquiry on Technological Innovations and Climate Change: Negative Emissions Technologies, it published a letter expressing concern that government policy could allow companies to set climate targets that were overly reliant on NETs rather than more proven and measurable emissions reductions.

It is clear through our work that a lot of detail is yet to be fully explored by the government

Philip Dunne, the Conservative chair of the EAC, warned these technologies had not yet been developed at scale, and their impacts were not fully understood, making it inappropriate for firms to integrate these targets into their carbon reduction strategies.

“Negative emissions technologies are at close to zero level of deployment in the UK, and it is clear through our work that a lot of detail is yet to be fully explored by the government,” he told The House, adding that the biodiversity implications of NETs was also not properly understood.

In a letter responding to the EAC’s concerns in late April, Energy Minister Greg Hands said the government would be consulting on business models for engineered greenhouse gas removal (GGR) methods in spring 2022 to help unlock private investment in NETs and enable deployment from the mid-2020s, and also consider public attitudes towards the new technologies. He said the government’s Net Zero Strategy was designed to minimise dependence on NETs, but it also said “GGRs must not be pursued as a substitute for decisive action across the economy to reduce emissions and made explicit reference to avoiding mitigation deterrence.”

Although the technology is in its infancy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, has said NETs will be required to help tackle global warming.  

“The IPCC’s recent report is clear that carbon capture and storage has a key role to play in achieving net zero,” Thrust Carbon, a firm that aims to help companies operate more sustainably, told The House.

Asked to respond to the concerns about the unintended consequences of relying on untested NETs to achieve climate goals, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government had backed the development of such technologies with £1bn of initial investment.

“We cannot turn off oil and gas overnight, so greenhouse gas removals have an essential role to play in supporting our transition to clean energy,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Dr Joshua Wells is Environmental Policy Consultant at Dods Political Intelligence


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