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Hacking threat to essential UK carbon capture technology highlighted

Hackers and terrorists represent a potential threat to the development of direct air carbon capture (DACCS) technology in the UK, a parliamentary committee has been told.

At a hearing of the Environmental Audit Committee last week, professor Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex, said the technology, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere with the intention of storing it underground for thousands of years, could be vulnerable to attacks.

He told MPs: “Terrorists or hackers could target these types of carbon reservoirs and then release large amounts of carbon as a threat, or to get money or some sort of concessions. This is the tension: the more you concentrate and create economies of scale, the more you're creating potential security risks.”

Giving evidence to the committee, expert witnesses including Dr Amy Ruddock, European vice-president of Carbon Engineering, and Dr Chenggong Sun, associate professor of clean energy technologies at the University of Nottingham, said that the very high potential energy demand for DACCS also posed a challenge to its ongoing development.

Asked whether he was aware of any other concerns regarding the implementation of carbon capture in the UK, Sovacool said that the public still did not fully understand the technology’s potential.

“Very recent experiences here in the UK with shale gas and geothermal energy raised similar concerns about underground permanence, and I think this whole issue of social acceptance could also be very frustrating, because we could identify very strong geologic repositories that aren't socially viable, and that will create a nightmare for politicians and members of parliament who have to contrast security and climate change with social legitimacy and acceptance,” he said.

Despite the warning, Sovacool insisted that DACCS and other negative emissions technologies (NETS) were essential to the UK achieving its climate targets and represent a “huge opportunity” for the economy.

“In my work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I can tell you that almost every scenario we run depends on a very significant deployment of NETS by the mid-century, so I think it's definitely a technology we have to invest in as a safety measure – and even just to stabilise the climate,” Sovacool said.

“We’re literally now setting the goalposts to who will dominate the next energy transition mid-century. Those are the stakes, and the technologies could be so huge,” he added.

Ruddock also emphasised the importance of DACCS for achieving net zero carbon emissions targets, pointing to work that Carbon Engineering was carrying out with the UK-based firm Storegga.

“The project that we're doing with them entered ‘pre-feed’ – that means the first detailed engineering stage – back in August. We're looking at deploying a plant [that can remove] between 500,000 and a million tonnes of CO2 per year, and we're targeting operations in 2026,” she said.

Asked whether he thought DACCS could make a “meaningful contribution” to the UK’s negative emissions targets, Chenggong Sun said: “Yes, clearly”.

“Direct air capture is no longer considered as an option, but something we have to do to deliver climate action targets – particularly in the UK. Even if we take all existing technologies to their maximum potential, we still have quite a considerable [amount of CO2] remaining to decarbonise because of the wide range of harder-to-decarbonise sectors in the UK,” he added.

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