- While negotiators at the Dubai climate summit remain polarised on the phaseout of fossil fuels, abatement has emerged as a marker to promote carbon capture, usage and storage technologies that can reduce emissions but are expensive to implement.
- Much of the technology is yet to be tested at scale and could, at best contain a tiny fraction of the emissions that need to be curbed, even as there are much cheaper alternatives such as faster deployment of renewables, experts and campaigners said.
- A slew of analyses released during the summit indicates there is a concerted effort by big corporations to push carbon capture to reduce emissions that could then be used to justify continued burning of fossil fuels, that climate science says is untenable.
Positions on phasing out fossil fuels have hardened as climate negotiators race to reach a consensus at the Dubai summit this week. The crux of the discussions has boiled down to whether the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) will commit to phasing out fossil fuels within a time frame or agree to phase out unabated fossil fuels or even not make a mention of fossil fuels at all.
In the hectic parleys over exact phrasing, an unlikely issue has emerged as a flashpoint: carbon capture and storage, indicated by the suddenly important word “unabated,” which made its first appearance in the 2021 Glasgow summit, when all countries agreed to speed up efforts towards a phasedown of “unabated” coal power. The term is usually used in reference to emissions to describe carbon pollution not being captured by new technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
If efforts do infact land up being focussed on the phasedown of “unabated” emissions as is being discussed, it might allow nations to continue burning fossil fuels as long as they trap and bury the carbon dioxide emissions and stop the greenhouse gas from heating up the planet. The technologies required to do so are collectively called carbon capture, usage, and storage.
Ways to capture carbon emissions have now become a proxy for the pitched battle on both diplomatic and political fronts that could set the pathway to how and by how much the world will produce planet-warming fossil fuels, including oil, gas, and coal, in order to tentatively achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
The fault lines were clear even before the climate gathering started. Oil and gas producers must abandon “the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture” can offer a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach global net zero targets, the International Energy Agency said on November 23 in the run-up to the climate conference. Pathways that rely heavily on carbon capture are “pure fantasy,” the agency’s Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a critique.
In 2022, 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide were captured compared to cumulative energy-related emissions of 37 billion tonnes, a capture rate of just 0.1 percent, the energy agency said in a report. If policies announced by national governments are fully implemented, the amount of carbon capture would increase to 440 million tonnes a year by 2030 and 3.5 billion tonnes a year by 2050.
To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the capture would have to increase to one billion tonnes a year in 2030 and six billion tonnes a year in 2050, it said. Even under this overly optimistic scenario, carbon capture would account for just 10% of total emission reductions between 2022 and 2050.
The oil cartel reacted strongly to the global energy body. “This presents an extremely narrow framing of the challenges before us, and perhaps expediently plays down such issues as energy security, energy access, and energy affordability,” the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) said in a press note on November 27. “It also unjustly vilifies the industry as being behind the climate crisis.”
The polarisation has only got sharper as the conference progressed. It is not denied that carbon capture does not have a role to play, industry executives said.
“We need to start managing our waste. We have been throwing the carbon dioxide as a byproduct of industrial activity at no cost,” said Claude Letourneau, chief executive of Svante, a carbon capture firm that is a unit of oil major Chevron Corporation. “Now we are seeing the effect of it, and we need to manage our ways.”
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have found that there is a need to have this technology,” said Rich Powell, chief executive of Clear Path, a U.S.-based group advocating the use of carbon capture technologies. “So we need this to work at scale and at a reasonable cost if we have got any hope of stabilising global temperatures.”
Lobbyists at COP28
Advocates of these methods and technologies are attending the climate summit in large numbers. There are at least 475 lobbyists working on carbon capture and storage, according to a recent media report quoting numbers calculated by the Centre for Environmental Law in an attempt to monitor the growing influence of the CCS subset of the fossil fuel industry.
To be sure, lobbyists do not need to attend the meeting to influence decisions, nor can it be said they are able to do so. It does, however, indicate that Big Oil (some of the world’s largest publicly traded and investor-owned oil and gas companies) is making efforts to engage and to project itself as a part of the solution and not the problem, say observers.
The increased participation of oil lobbyists has not escaped attention since the summit is presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, who is also chairman of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, one of the world’s largest oil producers. Activists allege a clear conflict of interest, pointing to the fact that nearly 2,500 lobbyists associated with fossil fuel companies are attending the event, as revealed by Kick Big Polluters Out, a coalition of civil society organisations.
The conversations around carbon removal have become “increasingly tangible” in recent years, said Michael Browne, CEO at Crowdhelix, a collaboration platform that launched an initiative called CO2 Removal Helix in Dubai, a program backed by the European Union. “If we can bring scientists, small enterprises regulators, policymakers, and investors together at an early stage, we can help to accelerate the development and deployment of carbon removal technologies.”
Carbon capture has also been promoted at COP28 in high-level meetings and dozens of side events. A carbon management challenge was launched by several countries, including hosts United Arab Emirates, Australia, Canada, Egypt, the EU, the US, Japan and Denmark, announcing government support for carbon dioxide removal technologies.
The industry, too, is sparing no pain to convince its many detractors that it can deliver carbon abatement capacity at scale. Currently, they are small-scale techs playing a niche role in increased oil recovery and plugging methane emissions from gas wells.
However, CCUS is a critical solution for delivering net zero emissions due to its ability to decarbonise multiple sectors, according to Ruth Herbert, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, a European lobby group. It is one of the very few available technologies that can decarbonise industries such as iron and steel, fertiliser, cement, and chemicals, the association says.
The expansion of the carbon removal industry is also claimed to be picking up pace. As many as 198 new facilities have been added to the CCS development pipeline over the past 12 years, bringing the total to 41 operating projects, 26 under construction, and 325 in development, according to the latest report by the Global CCS Institute, an advocate of increased deployment.
One of the main objections to carbon capture is the extremely high costs. Meeting global climate goals using a high CCS pathway to net zero emissions by 2050 would be “economically damaging” and could cost at least $30 trillion more than cheaper alternatives, said a new analysis released at the summit by the Smith School at Oxford University. “Relying on mass deployment of CCS to facilitate high ongoing use of fossil fuels would cost society around a trillion dollars extra each year,” said Rupert Way, co-author of the report.
The report provided a summary of estimates of the cost of fossil power with CCS over the past 40 years and found no evidence of falling costs. “Any hopes that the cost of CCS will decline in a similar way to renewable technologies like solar and batteries appear misplaced,” Way said. “Our findings indicate a lack of technological learning in any part of the process, from CO2 capture to burial, even though all elements of the chain have been in use for decades.”
Opposition to carbon capture technologies
It is unsurprising that campaigners and experts are not convinced of the usefulness of carbon capture. Opposition is fairly widespread. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has criticised Big Oil’s attempts to reduce fossil fuel emissions using CCUS rather than reducing the fuels themselves, going as far as to call it greenwashing.
“We’ll doubtless hear a lot about industrial carbon capture technologies that attempt to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The COP28 host country, the world’s largest oil companies, and even programs in the U.S. Department of Energy are working hard to push this stuff,” said Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a U.S.-based think tank. “It’s mostly a distraction from what we really need to do right now: phase out fossil fuels and deploy more effective climate solutions.”
There are also fears that some countries and big oil corporations will use carbon capture as cover for continued investment in fossil fuel production, which will result in emissions that will not be ultimately abated.
Reliance on carbon capture and storage could release an extra 86 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere between 2020 and 2050, according to another analysis by a Berlin-based think tank, Climate Analytics, that was published during the Dubai summit.
Opening up abated fossil fuels risks pushing the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius warming limit out of reach, considering the expansion of oil and gas projects being promoted worldwide, the report said.
“The term abated is being used as a Trojan horse to allow fossil fuels with dismal capture rates to count as climate action,” said report author Claire Fyson. “Abated may sound like harmless jargon, but it’s actually language deliberately engineered and heavily promoted by the oil and gas industry to create the illusion we can keep expanding fossil fuels.”
“The false promises of abated fossil fuels risks climate finance being funneled to fossil projects, particularly oil and gas,” said Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics.
These findings make advocates of phasing out fossil fuels wary of the increased lobbying by Big Oil in favour of carbon capture. Most corporate advocacy promoting CCS to address climate change is not aligned with pathways recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s largest body of climate experts, for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees or well below 2 degrees, revealed an analysis by InfluenceMap, a non-profit think tank.
Corporate advocacy in favour of carbon capture between 2021 and 2023 is dominated by the oil and gas sector, which uses a wide range of influence tactics, from public relations and advertising to regulatory lobbying, to promote the technology, InfluenceMap said.
All this points to concerted action by big corporations and major oil-producing nations to push through the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels, leaving a loophole for continued use that climate science has proved beyond doubt is not possible without inviting climate catastrophe. Whether they succeed in this climate summit or not remains to be seen.
Banner image: Coal burning in a blacksmith forge to remove impurities. Photo by Sheila Sund/Flickr.