Good morning from New Economy Brief.

In the words of Joss Garman (Director of the European Climate Foundation), decarbonisation has become “the dominant question in British politics” and this week, the Prime Minister is keen to tell us which side he’s on. The PM kicked off the Government’s ‘Energy Week’ on Monday by giving the green light to hundreds of new oil and gas licences. This followed a weekend in which he branded himself as on the “side” of motorists

What is the logic here? Time and time again, polls show that the British public is growing increasingly concerned about the climate crisis. But there’s a caveat - polls also show that voters only back Net Zero policies when it doesn’t cost them too much. The government’s answer is to talk the language of cleaner energy, while simultaneously trying to draw a dividing line with Labour on energy security. How do they square that circle? Carbon capture and storage. By capturing the carbon dioxide that is released in the process of using fossil fuels, then storing it back in the ground, the Government argues that you can have your Net Zero cake and eat it. But is it all too good to be true?

This week, we take a look at the political debate around decarbonisation and whether carbon capture is the silver bullet the Government claims it to be.

What actually is carbon capture? Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is often promoted as a useful tool to mitigate the use of fossil fuels during the transition to more renewable energy sources and is seen by some as a vital part of Net Zero strategy. It encompasses a range of technologies which take two basic forms. One type of CCS relies on human-made processes to capture carbon and store it deep underground. This may involve giant air filters to capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere or pre-combustion methods which separate CO2 from hydrogen before fuel is burnt. Once the carbon is captured, it must then be stored. This may involve the use of saline aquifers: underground formations of sedimentary rock filled with salt water that are injected with CO2 to be stored permanently. The other main type of CCS involves taking advantage of nature’s capacity to absorb CO2, using ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests and wetlands to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Sometimes, the use of natural materials is taken one step further, using a technology called bioenergy with CCS (BECCS). More on this later… 

  • Does it work? So, CCS can take many forms - but is it effective? Its supporters would say so, pointing to Norway’s CCS operations that have been running since 1996, storing “close to a million tonnes of CO2 every year”. Many, including climate change think tank E3G, say that the large-scale deployment of CCS is critical for the transition to Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, even advocates of CCS, argue that while the technology can play a vital role in net zero transition, it must be considered as a last resort to complement other decarbonisation policies (such as rapid expansion of renewable energy).
  • A distraction? One of the main problems with CCS, critics argue, is that it is a “distraction” from other decarbonisation methods such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and consumption reduction. While it may be a useful tool to mitigate the harm caused by fossil fuel use in the meantime, some say that it deflects precious resources away from the mission of transitioning to fully renewable energy altogether. And as we’ve seen with Rishi Sunak’s announcements this week, it can often be used as a sticking plaster policy by Governments who are reluctant to fully transition from fossil fuels to renewables, rather than as a helpful interim tool.
  • A long way off. Another issue with CCS is that it might not actually be ready to use at scale. Research commissioned by Friends of the Earth Scotland and Global Witness found that “significant CCS cannot be expected in the energy sector until the 2030s at least”. In 2021, when this research was published, global operational CCS capacity was 39MtCO2 per year - about 0.1% of annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The research also highlights that to reach the Climate Change Committee’s projected CCS capacity of up to 176MtCO2 by 2050, the UK would have to quadruple the entire global CCS capacity. 
  • The “scam” of CCS and its history. Some critics of CCS argue that it can help energy companies to produce even more fossil fuels and profit from higher production, all while receiving Government support for using a ‘green’ technology. Greenpeace describes CCS as the “Great Carbon Capture Scam” - a scam that can be dated to as far back as 1972 when US energy company Chevron used waste carbon dioxide from a gas field to extend the life of another field 400 kilometres away. After using the CO2, the company vented the gas, meaning that there was “no real climate advantage”, but the technology did help to produce more oil. CCS has since been used in several cases “primarily” to “enhance oil production” rather than to offset or capture emissions, even in cases where companies have received huge Government grants for the storage. Greenpeace has described this practice as socialising costs and privatising profits. 
  • The dangers of BECCS. One method of carbon capture is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) which often involves the capturing of carbon via the photosynthesis of biomass crops. The biomass is then harvested and taken to a power plant where it is burned for energy. Some of the carbon released during the burning process is then recaptured and stored underground. Friends of the Earth has argued that not only does BECCS distract from “taking real action”, but will also “have unimaginable social and ecological impacts” due to the “deforestation” and “land-grabbing” required to provide biomass for BECCS at scale.
  • Energy security. Even if CCS was perfectly effective, it still means that we’re reliant on oil and gas. As we’ve seen recently, this reliance exposes us to energy insecurity and volatile international markets. Just because the drilling happens just off our shores doesn’t mean that we reap all the benefits - much of the oil and gas is exported. 

Can we transition without CCS? Obviously, less reliance on CCS means more reliance on other technologies or major shifts in behaviour. As part of the Paris Agreement, Integrated Assessment Model scenarios “with low or no CCS deployment require considerable increases in energy efficiency and near-term rapid fall in energy demand”. Reducing energy demand or increasing efficiency obviously require huge investment and behavioural change to have as effective an impact as possible. According to the think tank Ember, reaching “clean power” by 2030 means adding 90GW of wind and solar in the next 8 years. Currently, wind and solar have a combined total installed capacity of 42GW. Bridging that gap requires a lot of investment. However, many argue that investment in renewable energy is more cost effective and more efficient than investment in carbon capture which, as we’ve explored, has had limited proven success so far. According to research by Nature Energy, even moderately efficient renewable locations (e.g. for wind and solar power) “provide a better energy return than the majority of carbon capture technologies”. 

  • Ecosystem restoration. While chemical carbon storage, as promoted by the UK Government this week, has had limited success in recent years and could take a while to provide any benefits, some argue that the natural alternative could be the answer. Ecosystem restoration (for example of woodlands), would boost the country’s natural carbon sinks at relatively little cost. According to Green Alliance, new woodland is “expected to play a significant role” in carbon capture, with woodland “the only removal method deployed as scale in the UK” so far. Carbon markets, in which farmers and land managers are incentivised to plant trees and protect woodland can help to ensure that woodland is protected as a natural carbon sink. A total of 3,421 hectares of woodland were planted under the Woodland Carbon Code (WCC) in 2021-22, according to Green Alliance.
  • Batteries. The problem with a lot of renewable energy is that its efficacy relies on the weather. Batteries, however, can store surplus energy for a rainy day (or rather, a less windy or sunny day) and therefore adjust supply and demand to balance the system. The Climate Change Committee has argued that not only do we need batteries, but the use of surplus generation “to produce hydrogen through electrolysis (‘green hydrogen’), providing long-term storage so it can later be used to generate electricity”.

So what does this all mean? The announcement of this week should be seen as primarily driven by politics, and the attempt by the government to create a dividing line on climate that positions themselves on the side of energy security and lower bills. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen, but whatever the political situation after the next election the debate about which technologies to pursue in the green transition is unlikely to go away. If victorious next year, the Labour Party will inherit the same “dominant question” of our times - decarbonisation - and will have to decide how it answers it. As the PM positions himself firmly on one side of the debate, Sir Keir Starmer will have to decide whether to join him or to take a different approach.

Weekly Updates

Monetary policy and finance

ECB implements a form of ‘tiered reserves’. The European Central Bank is scrapping the interest rates it pays out on money held by commercial banks in a move towards a ‘tiered reserve’ system, saving the ECB from paying out $6bn to commercial banks. The New Economics Foundation outlines the case for a tiered reserve monetary policy framework in the UK and have warned that HM Treasury will have to pay for over £150bn to service higher interest on debts owed to commercial banks

  • Unlocking ‘hundreds of billions’ for HMT. They suggest reforming the way the Bank of England pays interest on reserves held by commercial banks at the central bank. This could save the taxpayer ‘hundreds of billions’ that otherwise would have been transferred as income to commercial banks. NEF’s Dominick Caddick has written a Twitter Thread explaining the details.

Insulating households from higher borrowing costs. Only 11% of US household debt is affected by the rise in their central bank’s interest rate, leaving most debtors insulated from higher borrowing costs. Investor and writer Charlie Bilello explains that most Americans mortgages, student loans and other forms of credit are on existing fixed rate schemes.

Energy and competition policy

Energy firms pricing power. Energy companies have continued to post record profits over the summer. For instance, Common Wealth calculated that BP distributed $3.3 billion to their shareholders through share buybacks and dividends in Q3 2023, 17 times more than they invested in “low-carbon” in Q2 ($190m). The Institute for Public Policy Research’s George Dibb and the New Economics Foundation’s Jeevun Sandher spoke to the Independent’s Tara Cobham to explain how profiteering still occurs in the energy sector due to “a combination of lack of regulatory oversight, little competition within the sector, and an energy price cap that companies are reluctant to go under”. 

The Fiona Scott Morton Affair. A prominent US economist, previously head of anti-trust policy under the Obama administration, has been the subject of political controversy after the European Commission had announced she would become their next Chief Competition Economist. Critics argued that her background in consulting for “a variety of large corporations” and Big-Tech firms would lead to conflicts of interest in the role. 

Regulatory capture in EU competition policy. The Time’s Mehreen Khan argues “The Scott Morton furore should not have been a victory for the EU’s parochial anti-Americanism, but a chance for authorities to safeguard the merger process from big businesses that use economists as hired guns.” The Balanced Economy Project has a deep dive into the debate it has opened up about competition policy and the growing problem of ‘revolving doors’ in lobbying and economic consultancy. (Read our previous explainer on New Competition Policy emerging in the US and EU.)


Welfare reform. The Institute for Public Policy Research has released a new report calling for an overhaul of the social security system, co-produced with The University of York, Abdrn Financial Fairness Trust and 100+ parents and carers with lived experience of Universal Credit. They found 7.6% of those expected to carry out full-time job search are having financial support withdrawn and call for removing the threat of sanctions.

Fiscal policy

The political case for tax and spend. Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis outlines the political and fiscal case for Labour to increase spending and taxes in their first Budget: “It will take time for the benefits of higher public spending to be seen in lower waiting times and better staff retention, so the sooner Labour starts the better.” He outlines “obvious tax increases that can be made that will impact mainly on the well off”, as well as a “strong political argument for going beyond these, and to raise taxes that are paid by much larger numbers of people.” 

Lost revenue to tax havens. Tax Justice Network have calculated that governments across the world are set to lose nearly $5tn in tax revenue over the next 10 years due to multinational corporations and wealthy individuals using tax havens to underpay tax. They are urging countries to support moving leadership on global tax from the OECD to the UN, “where global membership, public transparency and the UN’s human rights legal frameworks and technical expertise can provide a more viable forum for securing effective tax solutions.”