3 December 2009: A cleaner North Sea energy hub

Yesterday I went to Brussels for a seminar on CCS with Ruud Lubbers, who used to be prime minister of the Netherlands and is now running the Rotterdam Climate Initiative. Rotterdam is ideally placed to be a CCS hub, as it is located between some major CO2 sources (the Netherlands and Germany) and the depleted oil and gas fields and saline aquifers of the North Sea. Putting CO2 under the sea is better than putting it underground onshore – not practically, but in terms of winning public support – and obviously much better for the climate than putting it into the atmosphere. Therefore, Lubbers is promoting a scheme to construct carbon pipelines from the countries around the North Sea to the storage places – he proposes to start with depleted oil and gas fields and then use the saline aquifers – and is seeking support from the governments.


He also pointed out that the North Sea has great renewables potential – wind immediately, and medium-term wave and tidal. So, having provided substantial oil and gas for the last 30 years, it should now be seen as an enormous source of cleaner energy, both renewables and CCS. Therefore, carbon pipelines and an electricity grid covering the North Sea need to be constructed as soon as possible. This is an example of what the EU should now be doing, rather than conducting endless debate about institutions (as I argue in an article in today’s New Statesman, see Greens and blues).


The EU has a target to have 10 to 12 large scale CCS demonstration plants operational by 2015. This will require subsidy and the European Commission has funds and is making some (though not enough) progress awarding them to particular schemes. With Copenhagen starting this weekend, the debate will inevitably be dominated by targets. Targets are useful, but they are not the most important thing – providing money for the low-carbon transition is more important. If Copenhagen makes progress on producing extra funds, particularly for forest protection, and takes this from unnecessary activities (such as propping up car companies) rather than existing aid budgets, then the conference will have been worthwhile.


CCS is not renewable and not entirely clean, as some CO2 and other air pollutants are still emitted. However, it is much cleaner than burning coal without CCS and must (like nuclear power) be regarded as a bridge technology until we can be 100% reliant on renewables. The seminar discussed how greater public support for CCS could be obtained and whether this was a role for politicians, business or environmental groups. My view is that it politicians and industry are not able to do this, since they are not widely trusted (particularly in the UK at present). They must provide the money, but it is up to environmental groups to promote the case with the public. The seminar was held by E3G, which is essentially an environmental think-tank and does excellent work.  WWF and the Norwegian-based Bellona were also present. Friends of the Earth Scotland is supportive, but other groups still argue that renewables are ‘better’. 


As they are, but the question they then fail to answer is ‘how quickly can the world be 100% renewable, and what are the least bad other options between now and then?’ 

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