Our ongoing failure to reign in carbon emissions makes technological climate solutions increasingly critical, but there are limits to what they can do. While carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and negative emissions technologies (NETs) are critical parts of a suite of climate solutions, petrostates and the fossil fuel industry are asking the impossible of these fledgling technologies. Although there are many operating pilot plants that have proven the concept, there is a yawning gulf between what they say they can do and what they can deliver.
Versions of carbon capture have been around for decades, but the technology has yet to be proven at scale. As described by CARBON REMOVALS AT COP, a collaborative effort of volunteers, NGOs, and practitioners from across the carbon removal ecosystem, “there is a huge mismatch between the identified need and the current scale of efforts.” We are currently removing only a few thousand tonnes of CO2 from the air, but according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we need to remove billions of tonnes each year.
The CCS gap
The UAE, the COP 28 host country, and the president of the climate summit Ahmed Al Jaber have made it clear that they want to rely on technical solutions. They are trying to shift the focus on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and away from phasing out or even reducing fossil fuel extraction. While Al Jaber is calling for a 30-fold increase in CCS, the IEA estimates that at current rates of fossil fuel extraction, carbon removal technologies must be scaled up 100,000-fold by 2050 to stay on track for a net zero world.
There is an unbridgeable gulf between the emissions generated by fossil fuels and what they capture. In 2021 the global operational CCS capacity was 39MtCO2 per year, which is about 0.1 percent of annual global emissions from fossil fuels. According to research coming out of the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, CCS will not enable us to reduce emissions and keep temperature increases below the 1.5°C upper threshold limit laid out in the Paris Agreement. Although some in the fossil fuel industry have made unproven claims of a 95 percent capture rate, the Tyndall study concludes that “fossil fuel-based CCS is not capable of operating with zero emissions.”
This led the researchers involved in the study to say there is a real danger of relying on CCS. “A focus on CCS will not help achieve 2030 CO2 emission reduction targets,” the researchers said. As Christiana Figueres explained, “We do not have CCS commercially available and viable over the next five to seven years. It’s just not going to happen.”
Do the math
Led by the UAE, petrostates are claiming they want to decarbonize fossil fuels with carbon capture but they are nowhere near being able to do what they are claiming. According to ADNOC, the newly announced Habshan project will capture and store 1.5 million tons of the 194 million tons of carbon the UAE spews into the atmosphere each year. When the Habshan plant comes online, the UAE’s total carbon capture capacity will be 2.3 million tons or less than 12 percent of the UAE’s total emissions. When we combine all 13 planned CCUS projects of the 7 countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the total estimated carbon removal capacity is estimated at 20 million tons of CO2, which is less than 2 percent of the emissions they generate.
According to a Global Witness analysis, it would take 343 years for the UAE’s ADNOC to remove all the emissions it will produce in the next six years.* Even the UNFCCC‘s most optimistic CDR build-out scenarios for wealthy nations, predicts a capture rate of ∼2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, which is only 18 percent of their present emissions.
Costs too much
While there are economic opportunities associated with carbon capture, there are also substantial costs and well-warranted concerns about scalability. As reported by AP, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledges that carbon removal has a key role to play, but he cites experts who reject the fossil fuel industry’s vision for carbon capture as too costly to deliver the urgent emissions cuts we need to see.
Implementing carbon capture throughout the fossil fuel industry would be prohibitively expensive. According to Domien Vangenechten, the CCS senior policy adviser at climate think-tank E3G, carbon capture technology is “hugely capital intensive,” and investors must contend with a pay-off period of between 15 and 20 years.
A study produced by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) shows the costs of carbon removal technologies remain high, making them “very expensive compared to other options (such as electrifying industries or restoring ecosystems)”. As explained by US climate envoy John Kerry and others, the higher costs imposed by an industry-wide rollout of CCS would make it impossible for fossil fuels to compete with alternative energy sources like renewables. The UNFCCC concludes that DAC is also too expensive at present to be deployed at scale and other CDR researchers have come to the same conclusion with regard to bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
Not enough time
Even if the fossil fuel industry was sincere about retrofitting all its infrastructure with carbon capture technology, with hundreds of refineries, tens of thousands of oil fields and almost a million wells, this will take decades. In the unlikely event that they were to succeed, they would only be addressing the emissions generated during extraction and refinement and not the bulk of emissions that are generated when hydrocarbons are burned.
Our inaction is coming up against deadlines that may push the Paris targets out of reach. The Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA 5) warned that the needed technological transition is not happening fast enough. David Waskow of the World Resources Institute told Axios we don’t have time to slow-walk solutions, and he called for systemic change. “Transformation has to be the central thrust of COP 28 — we’re past the point of incremental change,” Waskow said. Recent research reinforces the large body of evidence that shows incremental efforts are doomed to fall short.
“There’s no time left to tinker at the edges. Instead, we need immediate, transformational changes across every single sector this decade,” WRI researcher Boehm said. As explained in the latest UNFCCC NDC Synthesis Report “Inch by inch progress will not do.” Kumi Naidoo, former US Secretary-General of Amnesty International and former Executive Director of Greenpeace, succinctly stated, “We have no time left to wait.”
We don’t have the time to scale carbon capture technology. The ETC noted the sluggish deployment of CDR, and the Tyndall Centre research showed that even the most “optimistic forecasts do not anticipate significant CCS capacity until at least the 2030s.” Scaling carbon removal technologies to remove billions of tonnes of carbon each year is not technically feasible within the time constraints we are facing.
The risks of overreliance
There is a strong legal case being made by researchers who argue that heavily CDR-dependent emissions reduction pathways contravene norms and principles of international law. This study concludes that “Excessive CDR reliance carries risks that jeopardize the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal.”
These researchers identified three risks: The uncertainty surrounding our ability to scale CDR, the impermanence of storage solutions for captured carbon as well as adverse social, economic, and environmental impacts. They also suggest the heavily CDR-dependent pathways may be incompatible with a human rights approach to achieving climate goals, it may also violate the norm that requires a high standard of due diligence from states to prevent transboundary environmental harm.
As explained by these researchers, “Emission-reduction pathways that depend heavily on CDR, given their corresponding risks and uncertainties, go against the grain” of finding carbon reduction pathways that are rooted in scientific evidence.
The carbon capture ruse
The way that the hosts of COP 28 are promoting CDR is a ruse. Even the most optimistic CDR scaling scenarios are irreconcilable with the Paris targets (43% phase down of emissions by 2030 and net zero by mid-century). A 2021 Global Witness study, concluded the world cannot meet its carbon reduction goals with carbon capture.
Led by the Gulf States, petrostates are lining up behind technical solutions because it gives them the pretext to ramp up the production of fossil fuels, which Jonathan Noronha Grant from Global Witness called a “dangerous red herring”. As the ETC said, carbon technologies are being “co-opted by fossil-fuel companies as an excuse to keep extracting and burning oil and gas.” The ETC report said fossil fuels cannot be offset with CDR, and trying to do so is a “dangerous delusion”. The report also said more than 90 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if we are to meet our Paris targets. Citing this data, they warned the fossil fuel industry not to use CDR as an excuse to keep extracting hydrocarbons.
Oil giants are investing in carbon capture to create the impression of decarbonization, but they know that this is not possible. The goal of the fossil fuel industry is to protect their business model and to do this they are pursuing a carbon capture-focused public relations strategy. They are asking for more from CCS than is realistic or even possible and they know it. COP 28 is not about the rational rollout of an important technology. It is a public relations gambit that uses carbon removal as a distraction and ultimately a ploy to build acceptance around the idea of ramping up fossil fuel exploitation. The goal is to carve out a window so they can increase oil and gas production with promises of emissions reductions down the road.
The fossil fuel industry can’t decarbonize oil, at best they can remove a fraction of the emissions they generate in the extraction and refining process. They can’t even begin to address the massive carbon load that is generated by the burning of the oil, gas, and coal they produce.
Fossil fuel phase-out
The extent to which we are forced to rely on CDR depends on the emissions we continue to produce. The larger our dependence on CDR the greater the level of risk we entertain. Given the cost and timeframes to scale, reducing source emissions in the near term is the only way we can have a shot at achieving the Paris targets.
The recent Production Gap Report references the risks and uncertainty of CCS regarding both viability and scalability. The report concludes that these concerns warrant a precautionary approach that limits reliance on carbon technology in favor of a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. As Grant stated, ‘If we are serious – we must immediately reject the CCS [carbon capture and storage as a] false solution and tackle the existential oil and gas problem head on.’’
As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “COP28 must be the place to urgently close the climate ambition gap.” CDR is not a silver bullet. There is no viable pathway to achieve the Paris climate targets without dramatic decrements in our use of hydrocarbons. No matter how you spin it, carbon technologies cannot replace phasing out fossil fuels.
* 3,430 tonnes of carbon from the production and burning of fossil fuels between 2023 and 2030. Even if they lived up to their 2030 pledge of 10m tonnes per annum it would take the company more than 340 years to capture the carbon it produces over the next six years.