First broadcast on 21 April 2021
In this episode, Tom Heap reveals a radical approach to carbon emissions.
There are already examples around the world where the manufacturer helps to pay for the safe disposal of waste from their goods once used - such as electronic items or bottles. But what about the carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels?
Tom hears about the 'Carbon Take Back Obligation' concept - in which oil and gas producers would have to capture and store C02 - ratcheting up from 1% of what they produce by 2023, to 10% in 2030 and 100% by 2050. Some say it's impossible to meet the aims of the Paris Climate Agreement without it.
But where would all that carbon dioxide go? How much storage space would we need for it and how much of the cost would trickle down to the petrol pump?
Dr Tamsin Edwards of King's College, London joins Tom to add up the numbers.
Listen now on BBC Radio 4
We asked Society Fellows Professor Stephen Peake from the Open University and Dr Chris Hope from the University of Cambridge, to offer some observations on the potential of Carbon Take Back Obligation (CBTO) in reducing carbon emissions. Their points take some of the themes of the programme a step further.
Stephen Peake and Chris Hope both place this idea in relation to ‘big picture’ debates about the political economy of climate change. Both point to alternatives that in their analysis are more ‘tried and tested’ (or perhaps better put as ‘tested and not tried enough’?). But this outwardly simple and provocative idea invites further exploration, not least because there may be elements that could complement climate change taxation or major energy demand reduction schemes for, say, the housing sector.
One of the originators of Carbon Take Back Obligation, Margriet Kuijper, anticipates some of the challenges posed by Stephen and Chris. She explains well how it would work alongside – and in some senses, would be a supply-side equivalent to – demand-side regulation such as the EU Emissions Trading System. She suggests that it wouldn’t be replacing incentives and regulations for improved energy efficiency and the transition to low carbon energy, but be supportive of them. The Netherlands case study also shows that it could or would be national, rather than global.
The extra cost to the fossil fuel industry should help renewables by making them more competitive, and place constraints on the ‘supply side’ as well as the ‘demand side’ of the energy system. Furthermore, it sits within a now well-established tradition of 'polluter pays' approaches.
There are links to Kuijper’s and colleagues' publications towards the end of this page.
CTBO is in effect a proposal for a mandated requirement for carbon dioxide capture and storage. Carbontakeback.org gives some figures for the cost and feasibility of this up to 10% of emissions in 2030, but does not offer calculations beyond that date. The question is left hanging: how will the other 90% be captured, and what are the technical possibilities for achieving that figure? These questions directly lead to the larger question: why mandate this particular measure, which may turn out to be very expensive, particularly if we have to start mechanically removing CO2 from the air?
Oil refinery (Image: Dbchandler/Pixabay)
There is a complementary approach - climate change taxation - that could be said to be in the same family and that many economists have long argued would have a broad, strategic impact, but that is more intuitive, transparent and deliverable. I suggest a climate change tax, often also known as a carbon tax, can deliver the same objectives, probably much more cheaply, in line with the general principles of resource pricing. Tietenberg’s textbook is a great textbook introduction to this whole field.
This is a tough one - I believe in building a positive low energy low carbon (renewable) energy economy - and all this is about trying to drive fossil fuels towards a ‘neutral net effect’. At the same time, I can see that there are significant additional damages for every 0.1ºC higher we allow Global Mean Surface Temperature (GMST) to peak at.
In the programme, Myles Allen and colleagues are saying “we need everything we can get our hands on”, and that’s difficult to argue with. But the global economy hasn’t delivered much in this direction to date despite over 20 years of talk of the potential of Carbon Capture and Storage. So to be pragmatic, if we are to slash the climate impact of the currently fossil-fuelled global political economy, I would argue we need ‘to do less and do it better’ in every area of the economy and daily life. And we need to achieve all that fast. A very provocative way of putting it would be to phrase this as an exam question: "Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) is a cuckoo in the low carbon low energy nest. Discuss."
I suspect that not many people answering that exam question would argue that they want to live in a society that has got better at storing carbon from fossil fuels. With all options on the table you might instead say: "There is no need for CCUS. Let’s create a society that is good at designing low energy systems and harnessing renewable energy sources".
Every day we waste 90% of the energy we consume, from an exergy perspective, and 66% from an energy efficiency perspective. If we stop wasting energy we won’t need to go to great lengths developing a new industry to allow us to keep generating it from fossil fuels. More than that: a dollar spent on energy efficiency offers multiple long-term cascading co-benefits. It is going to cool the planet a lot more than the same dollar spent helping CCUS where there is a more or less linear relationship between cost and benefit once the industry matures and the learning curve plateaus.
Cavity wall insulation (Image: Erik Mclean/Unsplash)
Amory Lovins has been writing on energy and environment for decades, and his core point is that you need to think of energy consumption and production as one system. He says “don't forget integrative design thinking”. Without it you find yourself “shaving the Yak”, in other words creating another task (CCUS) in addition to the sourcing and distribution of fossil fuels, rather than thinking differently about the first problem (large scale fossil fuel consumption). There is an example of Lovins’ mind-opening writing on energy systems below, and there’s also a link to my latest book on the potential for renewables.
Although there could be some industrial strategy knock-ons, perhaps some synergy with nascent offshore hydrogen industries, the main risk here is that getting agreement amongst policy and industry at a global level will divert money, time, political capital and intellect away from the important central questions. These include:
building a low energy low carbon economy;
stopping deforestation and peatland destruction;
and accelerating nature based carbon capture and storage.
This last area of innovation is sustainable and again carries great co-benefits – above all for biodiversity protection (a parallel and currently somewhat neglected global environmental crisis). Nature based carbon capture storage (CCS) is hard to do but would be a good place to put the energies and investments that might otherwise be soaked up by trying to maintain the fossil fuel industry in its current form.
A well-designed global carbon tax equivalent to 50 pence per litre of fuel would be more than enough to seriously invest in energy saving and energy efficiency technologies as well as powering our renewable electricity and heat networks to their next level.
Lovins, A. (2005) More Profit with Less Carbon, Scientific American
Peake, S. (2021) 10 Short Lessons in Renewable Energy. Michael O’Mara Books
Kuijper M. (2021) Carbon Takeback Obligation A Producers Responsibility Scheme on the Way to a Climate Neutral Energy System, De Gemeynt BV
Net Zero All Party Parliamentary Group (NZ APPG) The Net Zero Decarbonisation Report: Putting Net Zero at the Heart of UK Policy, (NZ APPG) - UK parliamentary group’s report that consulted Kuijper, among a large number of others, in their pursuit of the question: ‘how can the UK achieve net zero emissions?’. The report helps to place ideas within a wider landscape of ambitious and imaginative thinking, but also makes clear that the challenge of achieving net zero will require these qualities in large quantities.
Tietenberg, H. (2006) Emissions Trading Principles and Practice. Taylor & Francis
39 ways to save the planet is a new radio series by BBC Radio 4 developed in partnership with the Society and broadcast in 2021. It showcases 39 ideas to relieve the stress that climate change is placing on the Earth. In each 15 minute episode Tom Heap and Dr Tamsin Edwards meet the people behind a fresh and fascinating idea to cut the carbon.
Over the course of 2021, the Society will be producing events and digital content to accompany the series.
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