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EU and 17 nations warn against using carbon capture as a substitute for drastic fossil fuel cuts

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

oil and gas plant spewing emissions
Image Credit: Chris LeBoutillier // Unsplash

A decade ago, there were only 18 commercial carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) facilities in operation. Today, there are over double with a total of over 500 projects in various stages of development across the CCUS value chain.

Despite the substantial momentum, CCUS has garnered in recent years, exceeding expectations, the most recent report from the International Energy Agency reports its not on track, below what would be needed to help achieve net zero by 2050.

This is one reason that the European Union – a bloc of 27 countries – and 17 individual nations have all signed a statement warning against over-reliance on carbon capture in an era, when, according to the statement, the focus should be on phasing out fossil fuels.

Coincidentally, fossil fuels are one of the biggest driving factors behind carbon capture, which unlike its cousin direct air capture (which captures CO2 directly from the atmosphere at any location, storing it permanently underground), sucks CO2 emitted at the source, retrofitting a steel mill or gas plant, in an attempt to offset fossil fuels.

In a carbon capture and storage operation (CCS), the CO2 is stored underground, and in CCUS, it is stored or utilized in a variety of applications, temporarily stowing it into commodities like plastics, concrete, and biofuels, or usually, used for enhanced oil recover (EOR) where the captured CO2 is compressed and pumped into oil reservoirs to increase the production of yet, more oil, that would’ve otherwise been inaccessible.

“Abatement technologies must not be used to green-light continued fossil fuel expansion,” the statement said, whose signatories include Germany, France, Chile, New Zealand, and climate-vulnerable island states Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, which led the statement, and has long issued warnings concerning carbon capture overuse.

“We need to really honestly look at where we are, what we haven’t done, and what we need to do,” said Tina Stege, the climate envoy of the Marshall Islands said at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin in May.

“The fossil fuel era has to come to an end.”

oil drill
Illustration by Nate Merrit

With 80% of known CCS projects and 70% of all known CCUS projects having fossil fuel participation and over 80% as of 2020 planning to use EOR, carbon capture has long carried contention for the notion that instead of helping renewables in pumping the brakes on fossil fuels, it gives it gas.

While the expansion of carbon capture has a lot to do with federal investment from governments like that of the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, it is also heavily correlated with fossil fuel investment and partnerships, with giants like BP, ConocoPhillips, Total, Chevron, Equinor, Shell, and ExxonMobil, all having a hand in known projects. In fact, the latter three are market leaders.

Still, as government investment picks up, with the UK announcing £20 billion in funding for early deployment of CCUS back in March, for example, the European Union and several other countries, some most affected by climate change, worry the growing investment in carbon capture risks giving companies a free pass to keep producing oil and gas while diverting funding away from decarbonization tools like renewables.

Such technologies “must be considered in the context of steps to phase out fossil fuel use, and should be recognized as having a minimal role to play in the decarbonization of the energy sector,” the statement added.

Instead, “the restoration and protection of carbon sinks should be a top priority," it reads.

According to Stege via the publication Reuters, which viewed the statement, this minimal role looks like CCS being limited to sectors that lack other CO2-cutting alternatives.

That’s why countries like the Netherlands — which is funding CCS projects in chemical production and other industries where emissions are hard to avoid — signed the statement.

“It cannot be the focus. It’s one of the tools, but in a toolkit that has to be about deployment, massive scale-up of renewable energy,” she told Reuters.

Still, the majority of current carbon capture projects are less about limiting emissions in chemical production, and more about offsetting oil and gas operations.

Plus, in order for CCS to make a dent in emissions, the IEA reports its capacity will need scaling up by more than 15 times by 2050, alongside enormously expanded renewable energy investment and development and divestment from new oil and gas ventures.

The statement was also signed by ministers from Austria, Colombia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Ireland, Palau, Samoa, Senegal, Spain, and Vanuatu. While the EU and 17 nations in total signing the statement is a large front, it’s only a fraction of the nearly 200 nations that will be represented at the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference, better known as COP28, which is scheduled to be held in November in Dubai.

At the summit, delegates will debate the best way to deal with climate change, and it’s an understatement to say they starkly disagree on carbon capture. On one end of the spectrum, the United Arab Emirates, which will be hosting the summit, is a big supporter, with Sultan al-Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as this year’s COP President.

His CCS support has welcomed several critics including former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, who earlier this year called his carbon capture push “very worrisome,” and “dangerous,” noting that she does not believe it will be viable in five-to-seven years, as it would need to be.

While al-Jaber himself believes commercial carbon capture to be a viable, affordable zero-carbon alternative, many like Figueres and several of the July statement’s signatories, believe too much of it will half the phasing out of fossil fuels.

“I just don't see most countries, and certainly not the vulnerable countries, being willing to support the COP president on this because it is a direct threat to their survival,” Figueres said.

Marshall islands covered in trees in distance
Marshall Islands. Image Credit: Christopher Michel // Creative Commons

While the statement notes a commitment to working with the incoming presidency, with vulnerable countries like the Marshall Islands leading the current warning against over-relying on CCS, Figueres may be right.

Battling drastic sea-level rise, extreme flooding, whiplashes of typhoons, tropical storms, and droughts, and while shrinking, one CNN columnist, John D. Sutter, put it bluntly in 2015: “The Marshall Islands likely won’t exist if we warm the planet 2 degrees.”

“Loss and damage caused by the climate crisis is getting worse every day, and it will continue to worsen at a faster pace as tipping points are reached,” the statement reads, echoing its support for a loss and damage fund, climate finance, green investment reforms, scaling renewables, and prioritizing restoration.

“The science is clear, and we know that the solutions are there,” it concludes.

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