We have now left it too late to rely on carbon emission reductions alone. In the words of the United Nations, large scale carbon removal – from technologies such as Direct Air Capture – is now “unavoidable”. By 2050, we will need 10 billion tonnes of carbon removal a year, the equivalent of 16 Amazon Rainforests. Even the former executive director of Greenpeace has said we “must” invest in these technologies.
This new global market needs to scale from the millions of pounds to the trillions if we are to have any hope of keeping the Paris Agreement alive. The potential of this market is already being spotted by some. In the last year alone $1bn has been raised by Frontier, $650m by Climeworks and $350m from LowerCarbon Capital.
The UK is primed to take advantage of this industry. The UK has four of the top ten universities in the world, which act as hotbeds for innovation and research. On top of that, London is the largest hub for start-up investment in Europe. Bristol and Oxford also rank among the top 20 start-up European hubs. For climate-tech, London is the second largest investment hub in the world after San Francisco.
An emergent carbon removal sector can help fulfil three key ambitions for the UK: economic growth, net-zero and levelling-up.
First, economic growth. This industry needs to undertake one of the steepest technology innovation curves in history if it is to help save us from climate catastrophe. There is an enormous economic prize to be won if the UK can onshore these industries at their inception.
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Second, net-zero. The Climate Change Committee have projected that one sixth of all decarbonisation in the UK will come from carbon removal. As governments set out their ambitions for 2030 and beyond, removals and reductions must go hand in hand.
Third, levelling-up. Three quarters – 77 per cent – of the jobs from carbon capture and carbon removal industries in the UK will go to the Midlands, North and Scotland. There is a clear incentive for the UK government, as 51 per cent of the seats set to benefit from this industry are currently Conservative. Carbon removal technologies can be a tool to bring jobs and opportunities to these regions.
To kickstart this nascent, high potential industry, political momentum needs to be injected into the carbon removal mission. This can be done by setting up a Task Force for Scaling Carbon Removals, led by an experienced senior parliamentarian. This could mirror the success of the Offshore Wind Cost Reduction Task Force in 2012 which was crucial in bringing down the costs of offshore wind by 52 per cent between 2010 and 2022.
On top of this, the Treasury should fire up the cylinders of the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) by making carbon removal its sixth priority. The Bank’s key purpose is to level up and tackle climate change. Given carbon removal’s unique ability to deliver on both, it should be brought in alongside the other five priorities of the UKIB – Clean Energy, Transport, Digital, Waste and Water. This change could help catalyse private sector investment for this public good and start to wrestle back momentum of this industry from economic competitors.
The case is clear. It is now time to deliver. If the UK does not act now to make itself an attractive home for the first generation of carbon removal unicorns, it will miss a golden opportunity to lead the world in tackling climate change, while levelling up the country and igniting economic growth.
Ted Christie-Miller is Head of Carbon Removal at BeZero Carbon.