- One of the issues that is still open in COP28’s final decision is the inclusion of the term “unabated” next to the phase out of fossil fuels, i.e. their complete abandonment.
- With “abated”, it is intended the use of technologies for capturing carbon dioxide emitted by large plants.
- The lobbying activities of the oil&gas industry however have already bent the G20 governments to their position and now, by pushing for the inclusion of the term “unabated”, they risk making us waste the last useful chance to achieve the Paris goals.
One of the most important results of COP28, probably the last chance we have to keep the average global temperature within 1.5°C and therefore protect ourselves from the most severe damages of the climate crisis, would be the mention of the phase-out (elimination) of fossil fuels in the final decision of the negotiations.
It is in itself extremely positive that phase out (and not phase down, reduction) is mentioned in the text. However, this expression is accompanied by a word that may seem harmless, but which could be decisive in outlining the decarbonization process: “unabated“.
What does “unabated” mean
The word appeared for the first time in the final text of the COP on climate in 2021, when it was included in the “Glasgow climate pact” that closed COP26 regarding the phase down of “unabated” coal.
The so-called abatement involves the burning of coal, oil and gas combined with the capture and permanent storage of a portion of the resulting CO2 emissions: that is, the application of CCS (“carbon capture and storage”) technologies.
These are technologies that have already been applied for decades by the oil&gas industry for Enhanced Oil recovery, i.e. to recover residual oil or gas from depleting deposits.
More recently, these techniques have been extended to capture carbon dioxide in a timely manner from the exhaust of powerplants or industrial plants, before it reaches the atmosphere. Once captured, CO2 is then stored either permanently in geological formations underground, or temporarily in products of various types.
A way out
The scenario that COP28 President Al Jaber seems to allude to in his speeches is one in which the 1.5°C target is achieved through the “reduction of emissions from fossil fuels“, and not through the reduction of their demand and production. In practice, a scenario in which CCS is used on a large scale.
In fact, it is recent news that the Secretary General of OPEC – Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries – Haitham Al Ghais has written a letter to the members of OPEC itself, inviting them to reject during the negotiation phase at COP28 any text or formula that targets fossil fuels, rather than emissions.
The use of CCS therefore represents a loophole for the oil&gas industry, a sort of get-out-of-jail free card, giving the impression that it is possible to achieve climate goals while maintaining large-scale consumption of fossil fuels (those abated, in fact).
This is nothing new, but one of the recurring narratives of Countries producing fossil fuels and the oil&gas industry, which over time have already conducted such an invasive lobbying action as to influence the climate policies of several Countries, as shows an analysis by InfluenceMap. The think tank examined recent high-level communications from 21 national governments (G20 and UAE) related to CCS and fossil fuel elimination, and concluded that the positions of 17 of the 21 Countries reflect those of the oil and gas sector.
What science says
About phasing out of fossil fuels, the science is extremely clear.
In all scenarios outlined by the IPCC that allow the temperature increase to be contained to +1.5°C with limited overshoot, the overall use of fossil fuels decreases drastically.
Credit: Carbon Brief. IPCC WG3 AR6 Report: emissions from the unabated sector are shown in dark yellow (fossil CO2), while those abated via CCS are in grey.
The IPCC also underlines that the existing infrastructures alone and those already designed for the extraction of fossils, if used in line with historical averages, would be sufficient to make us exceed the limited remaining carbon budget in a few years if we want to remain faithful to the objective of 1.5°C (in January 2024 approximately 270 Gton, i.e. approximately 6 years of current emissions).
The position of the International Energy Agency (IEA) is similar, whose NZE (“net zero emission”) scenario envisages both a drastic reduction in the use of unabated fossil fuels and a very reduced role for abated ones. In the NZE by 2050, the total supply of fossil fuels decreases by 83%: in detail, the supply of oil decreases by 78%, that of gas by 78%, that of coal by 92%.
“Intense use of CCS for decarbonization scenarios is a fantasy,” said Faith Birol, director of the IEA.
All this does not mean that CCS technologies are useless: on the contrary, they will be fundamental to counterbalance the remaining emissions due to the so-called “hard to abate” sectors, i.e. those for which we do not have yet alternative solutions to fossil fuels (for example, cement production and steel). However, they should never be considered as an alternative to reducing emissions: this option is too inefficient and expensive to be used at the scale suggested by the Emirs. A precious resource, in other words, not to be wasted when alternatives are available, i.e. for approximately 90% of current emissions.
The state of the art
Despite the use of huge subsidies allocated by States (Canada, USA, Norway) and private capital, CCS technologies have developed at a snail’s pace.
According to IEA data, around 40 commercial plants are currently operational globally; these sequester 45 million tonnes of CO₂ annually, which equates to just 0.12% of 2022 global emissions from the energy sector – a drop in the ocean. Faith Birol himself declared: “The history of CCS has been characterized by great disappointments”.
In the scenario supported by OPEC and the oil&gas industry, “to operate CCS plants […] more than 26,000 TWh of electricity would be required per year, more than global electricity demand in 2022“, we read in the IEA report ” The Oil and Gas Industry in Net Zero Transitions”. Furthermore, a dedicated annual investment of 3,500 billion dollars would be needed, which is what the entire oil&gas sector has earned on average in recent years.
A recent analysis by the University of Oxford reinforces the IEA conclusions. According to the authors, “widespread use of CCS to facilitate the continued large-scale use of fossil fuels would be economically harmful”. Following a net-zero mitigation path with massive use of CCS would in fact imply a greater outlay of as much as 30,000 billion dollars between now and 2050, compared to one with low use of CCS.
What are the risks?
The inclusion of the term in the COP28 negotiating texts closely resembles the European exemption of e-fuels from the ban on traditional cars in 2035: it is in fact a technology that, in practice, will have no role, and this is demonstrated by the same strategic plans of the car manufacturers which, certainly, do not embrace this option.
Even if no one outside the oil&gas industry would conscientiously invest in CCS rather than, for example, in renewables, the risks of including the term “unbated” in the final decision of the negotiations are significant. They are all in the firepower of the oil&gas industry in directing government action against the very interests of public finances and citizens.
The greatest danger is given by the credit and official recognition, however indirect, that the position of the oil&gas industry would receive. This would weaken scientific positions in public opinion and strengthen lobbying activities, pushing States to divert resources and incentives from the relatively cheap electrification of consumption to failing CCS pilot plants. In practice, this would cause a slowdown in the growth of clean technologies, which are winning the market but not fast enough.
This short timeframe, between now and 2030, is the last chance to keep global warming at manageable levels. The IEA predicts a peak in oil demand before 2030, even in the absence of further climate policies: the oil&gas industry’s attempt, if successful, would only postpone its inevitable decline by a few years, but it would make it impossible from winning the battle of the century.
Article by Elisa Terenghi, atmospheric physicist and volunteer of the Italian Climate Network
Cover image: UNFCCC