A key part of the UK government’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been opposed by the first citizens’ assembly on climate change.
Ministers and their advisers have previously said the UK would continue to use natural gas for “many years to come” and that carbon capture and storage (CCS) would have an “essential role” in meeting the target of net zero emissions by 2050.
But the UK Climate Assembly has voted strongly for a move away from fossil fuels and against the use of CCS.
The assembly, commissioned by six parliamentary committees, published its recommendations this morning on how the UK could reach net zero.
The 556-page final report, The Path to Net Zero, was the result of six weekends of assembly sessions, involving 108 members selected to represent the UK population in age, gender, ethnicity, home area and level of concern about climate change.
Many of the 50 recommendations, covering issues such as travel, home heating, electricity generation, greenhouse gas removal, shopping and food production, were in line with advice from the government’s adviser, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
But the assembly’s votes on fossil fuel use and carbon capture went against the CCC’s latest recommendations and government policy.
In secret ballots, 89% of assembly members agreed or strongly agreed that the government should move away from fossil fuels.
Just 22% supported the use of fossil fuels with CCS to generate electricity. 22% were unsure and 56% disagreed. This compared with 95% support for electricity from offshore wind, 81% for solar power and 78% for onshore wind.
The results are likely to disappoint the oil and gas industry, which regularly quotes government support for hydrocarbons as an energy source as part of the transition to a low carbon economy.
On the use of CCS as a method to remove greenhouse gases, only 42% supported bioenergy CCS and direct air CCS. Natural alternatives received much greater support: forest management 99%; peatland and wetland management 85%; and using wood in construction 82%.
One of the main reasons given for disliking CCS was that it maintained the use fossil fuels. Some assembly members suggested that it was “sidestepping the issue”, “carrying on as normal” and “not doing much to help climate change”. There were also worries about how safely carbon could be stored underground and whether there was a risk of leaks.
The technology was also described as “short-termism”, “unrealistic”, “not viable”, “not reliable” and “nowhere near being ready.”
Other members said CCS using redundant North Sea oil and gas wells would create jobs and use existing infrastructure. There were still fossil fuels available, they said, and electricity generation from gas was reliable and not dependent on weather or seasons.
Professor of Jim Watson, of University College London, an expert adviser to the assembly, said:
“The voting results do not make great reading for supporters [of CCS]. 22% unsure and a majority against.”
On the reasons why assembly members voted against CCS, he said:
“There is a clue there for the government. If those were the concerns, this is where the government, if they wish to pursue it, will have to assuage.”
Chris Stark, another assembly adviser and chief executive of the CCC, said:
“The view of the assembly doesn’t match what government has been recently saying about carbon capture and storage. It also doesn’t look as if it matches the outlook that the Committee on Climate Change projects for the future either. And that is one of the very valid concerns that came out from this.”
He said the committee had always supported CCS because it allowed other policies and technologies to be part of a low carbon transition. But he said:
“If we are going to have carbon capture and storage as part of the UK’s journey … then there is a task for the government and perhaps the industry to win round people on why it is a safe technology, why it can work and why it is a sensible technology.”
Assembly members did support the use of hydrogen (83%) for home heating, a technology promoted by some onshore gas companies.
But there was concern about hydrogen produced from methane (known as blue hydrogen). Assembly members who opposed blue hydrogen said it still used fossil fuels, relied on CCS and was less energy intensive than natural gas. Some said the UK should consider using only the zero-carbon green hydrogen, produced from water by electrolysis.
The report called for strong clear leadership from government allowing for certainty, long-term planning and a phased transition. It also stressed the needs for a cross-party, rather than partisan approach, as well as education and information, fairness, urgency and protection of the natural environment.
On the recommendations, Chris Stark said, with the exception of carbon capture, the technical assessments on reaching net zero by the CCC matched “quite well” with the views of the assembly.
“Where possible, we [the CCC] will draw on the assembly’s views in our forthcoming advice to government on the sixth carbon budget.”
The chairs of the parliamentary committees, which commissioned the assembly, urged the prime minister to “consider carefully the recommendations in the report”. They requested a published government response before the end of the year.
Other assembly recommendations
The future should minimise restrictions on how people travel, the assembly said. Instead there should be a shift to electric vehicles and improved public transport
- Ban on sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2030-2035
- Reduction in car use by 2-5% per decade
- Quickly stop selling the most polluting cars
- Increased investment in bus services
- Making public transport cheaper and bring it back under government control
- Investment in cycling and scootering
- Minimised restrictions on travel and lifestyle
- Support for shifting travel to electric vehicles and public transport
People should continue to fly but increases in passenger numbers should be limited, the assembly said.
- Growth in air passengers should be limited to 25-50% between 2018-2050
- 30m tonnes of CO2 would still be emitted by aviation in 2050 that would need to be removed
- Removal should be funded by the airline industry or government incentives
- Invest in alternatives to air travel and new technologies for air travel
- Increase taxes on people who fly more often and as they fly further
The assembly supported tailored solutions, increased choice, reliable information and the need for solutions suitable for all income groups and housing types.
- Local areas and individuals should be able to choose the best options
- Support for smaller organisations to offer energy services
- Ban on sales of new gas boilers from 2030 or 2035.
Food and farming
The assembly supported information and education, efficient land use, more local and seasonal food and making low carbon food more affordable.
- Local produce and food production
- Voluntary change in diet to reduce meat and dair by 20-40%
- Managed diverse land use
- Labelling the carbon cost of food and drink productions
- Low carbon farming regulations
- Paying farmers to use land to absorb and store carbon
- Preference for government contracts to low carbon food and products
- Support for businesses making products using less and lower carbon energy and materials
- Support to individuals to repair and share more
- Better information to promote informed choice and changes in behaviour
- Measures to increase recycling
Earlier this summer, the assembly published recommendations for how climate change policies should be included in a Covid-19 recovery.
79% of assembly members agreed or strongly agreed that steps taken by the government to help the economy should be designed to help achieve net zero.
96% supported steps by government and employers to encourage lifestyle changes compatible with net zero.