Carbon capture a 'dangerous excuse' for burning more fossil fuels

By Amanda Morrow - RFI
DEC 7, 2023 LISTEN

Week one of the Cop28 climate talks in Dubai heard much about the grandiose potential of carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) as dozens of countries push for a broad pact to phase out fossil fuels. While top producers use carbon sequestering as an excuse to keep on burning coal, oil and gas – given they're now “abated” – critics warn CCS is a fantasy solution that undermines the chances of any viable deal.  

Forging the first ever global agreement to phase out fossil fuels is a crux issue at this year's summit, where host the UAE is a major oil producer. A draft deal on Tuesday proposed "an orderly and just phase-out".

Burning fossil fuels for energy accounts for some 70 percent of emissions and is by far the biggest cause of rising temperatures. But it's only now – after three decades of UN climate negotiations – that the issue is being tackled head on.

Opposition from countries led by Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, however, could scupper chances of a full phase out. Meanwhile technology is being put forward as the way oil and gas producers can slash emissions while continuing to operate.

Failing ambitions

US climate envoy John Kerry on Wednesday told the conference that, according to the science, staying within the target of 1.5C warming limit this century would not be possible without CCS.

Cop28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is also in charge of UAE oil giant ADNOC, has been heavily promoting CCS as a climate solution.

The technology is a favoured talking point of nations who are failing to step up to the level of ambition required to meet the climate crisis, says Catherine Abreu, founder of climate advocacy group Destination Zero.

She argues that existing CCS projects are actually focused on extracting more oil and gas rather than operating in the way scientists account for when drawing up their predictions for the future.

“The IPCC [Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change] says that an extremely limited application of abatement technologies will be required in the future for hard-to-abate sectors like 'cement' for instance,” Abreu told RFI.

“But the IPCC scenarios make it very clear that applications in the energy sector for CCS are extremely limited and by no means can be used to justify ongoing fossil fuel production and expansion.”

'Excusable' emissions

As the employment of CCS technologies reaches an historic high, the thinktank Climate Analytics this week calculated the additional emissions that could result from the ongoing “excusable” burning of fossil fuels that are in theory offset by carbon sequestering.

“Reliance on large-scale CCS, combined with an underperformance in CCS technologies, could lead to excess greenhouse gas emissions of 86 billion tonnes between 2020 and 2050,” the report said.

Restricting a phase out commitment to “unabated” fossil fuels only risks pushing the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target out of reach altogether, it added.

“The term 'abated' is being used as a trojan horse to allow fossil fuels with dismal capture rates to count as climate action,” report author Claire Fyson said.

"'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."