Can Plans to Decarbonise Heavy Industry in South Wales Deliver?
Andrew Taylor-Dawson reports on a £30bn plan which relies on controversial ‘carbon capture’ and appears to be dependent on developing a deregulated Welsh freeport
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A group of some of the biggest industrial CO2 emitters in Wales have set out a road map to achieve net zero by 2040 and effectively cut Welsh emissions by 40%.
On the surface, these plans sound impressive, but are they all they’re cracked up to be?
With a reliance on technology that is still unproven and could continue to tie us into prolonged fossil fuel use and links to the development of one of the Government’s freeports, there are lots of questions to be answered.
The plan has been set out by the South Wales Industrial Cluster, a group consisting of 40 of the region’s largest industrial firms including oil refineries, steel works, chemical plants and ports.
They have worked with universities, local authorities and others on a two-year £40 million scoping exercise that has now delivered a plan which accounts for a £30 billion investment.
The plan aims for ‘green growth’, “retaining 113,000 jobs” and achieving “a net positive increase in jobs overall”. Elements of the plan, such as a greener electricity grid and hydrogen production appear positive, but there is also a significant reliance on carbon capture and storage.
Carbon capture and storage refers to the trapping of emissions, which are then buried to prevent their release. It is a controversial approach with environmentalists as it continues reliance on fossil fuels, is still not yet used at scale globally, and carries significant risk of leakage into the atmosphere.
The UK is committed to the use of carbon capture, particularly in relation to the development of 20 industrial clusters like the South Wales project.
The clusters have said that “the UK has one of the largest potential Carbon Dioxide storage capacities in Europe, making it one of the most attractive business environments for CCUS [carbon capture, usage and storage] technology. This is thanks to an unrivalled asset – the North Sea, which can be used to store captured carbon under the seabed”.
Carbon capture and storage has been lauded for many years as a potential tech solution, but little has happened to shake off criticism. As a 2021 report commissioned by Friends of the Earth Scotland and Global Witness points out that the UK-wide ambition for carbon capture and storage would mean a quadrupling of current global capacity by 2050 – a tall order.
The report also highlights that there are just 26 operational plants currents and 81% of the carbon captured has been used to extract more oil via the process of Enhanced Oil Recovery.
The plans from the South Wales Industrial Cluster are stakes its success on a technology, which is still not in wide use and has a history of projects attached to it, having over-promised and under-delivered.
One of the partners in the project is the oil giant Shell. Its own net zero strategy has been dubbed “delusional” by Greenpeace UK, which has said that “without commitments to reduce absolute emissions by making actual oil production cuts, this new strategy can’t succeed nor can it be taken seriously”.
A major plank of Shell’s strategy is carbon capture and storage alongside much derided off-setting from planting trees.
Another facet of the proposal that is worthy of examination is the link to the development of a new South-west Wales freeport – the details of which, will be announced soon.
The UK Government’s freeports programme is highly controversial. These are ‘special economic zones’, where taxes and regulation are stripped back to encourage business and investment. There is significant concern that they will incubate corruption and money laundering. Opposition to them has been voiced by the likes of environmentalist and Guardian writer George Monbiot among others.
If the aim of the freeports is to reduce ‘red tape’, it begs the question, how does this fit with a serious commitment to cut emissions? Deregulation and a pro-big business free for all is not the basis for a considered sustainable transition by heavy industry.
In 2020, Wildlife and Countryside Link – a coalition group representing over 70 environment and conservation groups voiced significant concerns about the development of freeports to the Government’s consultation on the subject.
They noted that “Freeports pose serious environmental risks, both for the land and sea on which the freeport is created if important environmental regulations are not upheld, and for the wider environment and animal welfare if freeports do not respect the need for vigilant biosecurity and customs processes”.
Further details of the proposed freeport are yet to come, but it’s clear what the intention of all freeports is. With significant concerns from environment groups and broader worries about the ethical implications of such significant deregulation, will close alignment to a new freeport really help to drive serious ongoing decarbonisation?
Decarbonising a whole region’s heavy industry may be a laudable aim, but the achievability of the proposals is seriously undermined by both the reliance on carbon capture and storage and a close alignment with a freeport.
The proposals are not without merit as they would boost the use of wind power and improve the electricity grid. However, this is yet another industry-led project that is predicated upon technology that both continues fossil fuel dependence and is yet to be scaled up to a significant level. This and the freeport link should raise serious questions about the strategy being adopted here.
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