Carbon capture is a critical climate technology that is at the center of this year’s conference of the parties. COP 28 is scheduled to take place in Dubai’s Expo City, UAE from Nov. 30 through Dec. 12. The event has been mired in controversy because the host country is a petrostate, and an oil industry CEO by the name of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber will preside over the event in his official capacity as the COP 28 president. Al Jaber has indicated that he intends to supplant the goal of reducing fossil fuel production with promises of carbon capture.
According to a leaked COP 28 communications plan, three core messages will be promoted at the forthcoming climate conference: Increasing renewable energy capacity, green finance, and emissions reduction. It is this last point that is at the core of the controversy.
The hosts of this year’s COP will try to avoid any talk about the scientific consensus calling for an end to fossil fuel use. They will ignore warnings from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which urges fossil fuel companies to put the brakes on all new oil and gas projects. They will not mention research that tells us we have to leave oil and gas in the ground if we are to meet the targets laid out In the Paris Climate Agreement. They will not consider the recommendations in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels.
Support for the host’s position comes from Petrostates and China. They have rejected calls for a phase-out of fossil fuels from a group of 80 nations including the EU. Al Jaber has indicated he will also ignore this call and leverage the power of the COP 28 presidency to justify ramping up the extraction of oil and gas.
The agenda behind the clever words
The UAE and Al Jaber have spent millions on public relations firms, so it is easy to be deceived by their carefully crafted statements. The word choices and opaque language they employ are designed to give the impression that we will see meaningful action at COP 28. But as Domien Vangenechten, the CCS senior policy adviser at climate think-tank E3G explained to Argus: “Nuanced definitions don’t help if oil and gas actors use [carbon capture and storage] CCS as a scapegoat to continue business as usual.”
Both Al Jaber and the UAE’s environment minister Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri have called for “decarbonizing” oil and gas and a “just” phasedown of fossil fuels. These words are meant to conceal the real agenda which is to keep extracting hydrocarbons.
To decipher the fossil fuel industry’s intentions and expose their end game, we should scrutinize what is said alongside what is not said. Al Jaber called for a 30-fold increase in carbon capture technology, what he does not say is that this is nowhere near enough to come remotely close to capturing the emissions generated by oil and gas. Al Jaber has called for a tripling of renewable energy capacity, but he fails to mention that this support is nowhere near the rate required to replace fossil fuels. He also called the phasedown of fossil fuels inevitable, but he does not say when.
The old energy industry is trying to change the narrative and decouple climate action from phasing out fossil fuels. Pedro Pizarro, president of Edison International, a major California utility, illustrates the clever sleight-of-hand word usage in the following quote: “Right now the problem to solve isn’t fossil fuel,” Pizarro said. “The problem to solve is climate.”
Al Jaber offers us another illustration of deceptive wordplay when he says, “We must be laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions.” While it sounds like he is serious about climate action, what he is really saying is that he wants to switch the focus away from reducing fossil fuels to reducing emissions. Aramco CEO Amin Nasser was even more blunt when he said COP 28 should not focus on shutting down or even slowing conventional energy, it should focus on reducing emissions. Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who presided over the landmark Paris Agreement calls such comments “very dangerous”.
The carbon capture fig leaf
The ability of carbon capture to remove CO2 from industrial processes makes it an essential part of a suite of required climate actions, however, the UAE and other petrostates are using it to justify the ongoing production of hydrocarbons. Danielle Smith, the premiere of the Canadian province of Alberta, could not have been clearer when she said she intends to use carbon capture to increase extraction of the tar sands, some of the dirtiest oil on Earth.
“We’re transitioning away from emissions, we’re not transitioning away from oil and gas,” Smith told participants at the World Petroleum Congress, adding, “We’re not going to phase out production of oil and natural gas, we’re just going to change the way in which we use it.”
The word ‘abated’ is the key to unlocking the UAE’s COP 28 strategy, it refers to decreasing emissions from the extraction and refining of fossil fuels with the use of carbon capture technology. Calls to phase out oil and gas are being replaced with calls to phase out unabated fossil fuels. This is the language used in the UAE’s Presidency visionary document for COP 28 as well as a recent G7 statement. It has even found its way into the U.N. global stocktake.
However, the global stocktake also said carbon capture should not be used as “a crutch”. It goes on to explain that carbon removal technology does not “absolve” companies of their responsibilities to phase out fossil fuels. This statement echoes the words of Kumi Naidoo, former US Secretary-General of Amnesty International and former Executive Director of Greenpeace. Naidoo said carbon removal cannot be an “excuse for the fossil fuel industry to avoid action.”
The reason that Al Jaber, the UAE, and the fossil fuel industry are supporting carbon capture is to extend the lifespan of hydrocarbon extraction. As explained in a Wood Mackenzie report, the fossil fuel industry’s support for CO2 capture “allows for slower decline in oil and gas”.
Business as usual
Oil and gas companies are not heeding calls to wind down production. An analysis by global research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie found that fossil fuel companies intend to keep extracting and refining oil and gas until “at least 2040”. According to leaked documents, COP 28 advisors, McKinsey and Company are advancing a narrative that envisions long-term reliance on oil well beyond 2050.
Al Jaber is using COP 28 to engrain the false narrative that we will be reliant on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. This is consistent with what we expect from the head of an oil major, but it is at odds with his responsibilities as the president of a conference designed to reduce emissions. His position, like the position of petrostates and fossil fuel majors, is fundamentally incompatible with climate action.
Petrostates and the fossil fuel industry are using a critical climate solution as a pretext to renege on their climate commitments and continue to produce oil. “We will stay anchored in what we know we’re good at,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told McKinsey.
The heart of the ruse: Excluding scope 3 emissions
An International Energy Association (IEA) special report offered the following cautionary warning: “Cutting emissions from oil and gas operations isn’t an excuse not to also address the huge amount of emissions caused by using the fuels themselves in transport, heating, electricity generation, and other activities.” This is what is known as scope 3 emissions.
Talk of carbon capture at COP 28 excludes scope 3 emissions which constitute as much as 95 percent of the total greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated by fossil fuels. So, when Al Jaber gives the impression that he wants to phase out the emissions from fossil fuels, what he is really talking about is using CO2 capture to phase out the 5 percent of emissions that come from the extraction and refinement of hydrocarbons. With almost a million oil and gas wells all around the world, scaling of this magnitude is not feasible in a timely fashion.
As explained by Tom Ellacott, senior vice president of corporate research for Wood Mackenzie, “Scope 3 net zero requires dramatic shrinkage of oil and gas”. Scope 3 emissions make fossil fuels fundamentally incompatible with combating global warming.
The real agenda is ramping up production
On November 8 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Production Gap Report 2023 which indicates that rather than declining, fossil fuel use keeps expanding. The report forecasts an acceleration of this trend. Twenty major fossil fuel-producing countries have indicated that they are planning to ramp up production at more than twice the levels (110%) deemed acceptable by the Paris Agreement.
As reported by Reuters, Ploy Achakulwisut, one of the report’s lead authors, said: “Fossil fuel phase-out is one of the pivotal issues that will be negotiated at COP 28. We need countries to commit to a phase-out of all fossil fuels.”
As reported by Euronews, a group of 17 countries, including France, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands wrote a joint statement in which they cautioned heads of state not to look at CO2 capture as a silver bullet. They explicitly said carbon capture should not be used “to green-light fossil fuel expansion”. The global stocktake also warns oil and gas companies not to use carbon capture to “justify continued fossil fuel expansion.”
Despite these warnings, this is precisely what Al Jaber intends to do at COP 28. The scheme is designed to give the impression of climate action, while the real agenda is ramping up the production of hydrocarbons to take advantage of the windfall of profits associated with Russia’s war in Ukraine. As reported by France24, many oil and gas majors are “doubling down on their core business” to cash in on the crush of demand.
The goal of COP 28 is to create a pretext to increase extraction from existing wells, generate new upstream investments, and develop new projects. According to the AP, leaked documents show that McKinsey has crafted an “energy transition narrative” that is seeking $2.7 trillion a year in new oil and gas investment. Talk of carbon capture is meant to buy time to allow them to continue capitalizing on their core business and to solicit investors to keep the oil flowing.
We can’t afford to fall for their carbon capture gambit
Carbon technology is being maneuvered at COP 28 as part of a dangerous campaign of disinformation. We cannot decouple fossil fuels and emissions for the foreseeable future. Even if the oil industry makes good on its promise to roll out carbon capture at a prodigious rate, it will take more time than we have and it will not cut the bulk of GHGs which are generated when fossil fuels are used.
Talk of carbon capture gives the impression that removing CO2 from source emissions will result in a net reduction in GHGs, but the truth is ramping up the production of hydrocarbons will exponentially increase atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
At COP 28 Al Jaber will cast himself as a champion for the global south and he will claim to be helping industries to decarbonize. He will call for more efficient extraction, he will call for scaling carbon capture and storage, he will call for zeroing out methane emissions, and he will call for more renewable energy. What he will not do is impede the uninterrupted flow of fossil fuels and this is the very thing we must do to keep the Paris targets alive.
Carbon removal is a vital part of climate efforts, but the way it is being framed is a ruse. This is not an indictment of the technology; it is an indictment of those who overstate its capabilities. We cannot afford to fall for the chicanery of petrostates. The carbon capture gambit is a cynical ploy, and if we buy in, it could end our hopes of fending off a climate catastrophe.