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Carbon capture, storage emerge as a contentious issue after COP28 meet

ByJayashree Nandi
Dec 25, 2023 05:04 AM IST

The UAE Consensus has urged countries to adopt various mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

New Delhi:

A person points at a stack of trays holding treated limestone, used to absorb CO2 from the air, at Heirloom's new plant, in Tracy, California, on November 9. (REUTERS)
A person points at a stack of trays holding treated limestone, used to absorb CO2 from the air, at Heirloom's new plant, in Tracy, California, on November 9. (REUTERS)

After the UN climate summit earlier this month agreed to slowly phase out fossil fuels to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, a mitigation measure known as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) has emerged as a contentious issue among experts and analysts.

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The 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), primarily for a global stocktake of the progress made since nearly 200 nations agreed to keep global temperature rise to well within 2 degrees Celsius and make efforts to contain it to 1.5 degrees in the 2015 Paris climate pact.

The UAE Consensus has urged countries to adopt various mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the agreement, one of the means is “accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilisation and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production”.

This was in line with an analysis done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s largest body of climate experts, which said: “All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius with limited or no overshoot project the use of carbon dioxide removal.”

Experts have been wary of this because such a provision could allow nations to continue expanding the use of planet- warming fossil fuels while depending on carbon capture technologies in a big way.

There are no scenarios in the IPCC in which CCUS would allow continued use of fossil fuels at current levels, let alone expansion of oil and gas production, explained experts at the World Resources Institute (WRI), an international think tank. Hence, dependence on CCUS could derail the world from keeping the 1.5 degrees goal alive. Today, CCUS captures around 0.1% of global emissions, or around 45 million tons of carbon dioxide, the WRI said.

CCUS is a way to reduce emissions from sources such as power plants and industrial facilities. The carbon emissions are captured before entering the atmosphere and then either permanently stored underground or incorporated into products. Carbon dioxide removal, also mentioned in UAE consensus, removes carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.

“This is a new technology. It will come at a steep cost to developing countries and we will have to see what are the results,” an Indian negotiator had said on condition of anonymity during the 2023 climate summit. “Technology sharing by developed nations will be key. We are also doing our R&D domestically,”

The petrostates, particularly Saudi Arabia, have been vocal that mitigation has to do with limiting emissions and not sources of emissions or energy. Developed countries, particularly the US and petrostates, pushed for CCUS, negotiators said. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, for instance, will develop the Habshan carbon capture project, which will have the capacity to capture and permanently store 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, Reuters reported on September 6.

Last year, Niti Aayog released a report on CCUS and its deployment mechanism in India. “CCUS can enable the production of clean products while still utilising our rich endowments of coal, reducing imports and thus leading to an atmanirbhar (self-reliant) Indian economy,” Suman Bery, vice-chairman of thegovernment’s think tank, had said during the launch.

CCUS has, however, taken heavy flak from various experts.

“We need to transition away from fossil fuels, not just from fossil fuels in energy systems. Abatement technologies such as CCUS, carbon removal technologies and low-carbon hydrogen are code words for climate inaction and new fossil fuels subsidies,” said Lili Fuhr, director of the Center for International Environmental Law’s fossil economy programme. “While the fossil fuel lobby and big polluters can celebrate these LNG tanker sized loopholes in the Dubai outcome, this does not fundamentally change the rules of the game.”

“Delaying a rapid phase out of fossil fuels will result in higher cumulative emissions and thereby greater foreseeable harm,” Fuhr added. “Courts have, therefore, repeatedly expressed substantive concerns about governments’ reliance on carbon removal as opposed to near-term emission reductions with proven technologies.”

CCUS technologies will do more harm than good to developing countries, as they mostly serve as an excuse and cover up for business as usual for rich polluters, she said. They also come with risks and dangers for local communities and ecosystems, including pipeline leakage, toxic pollution and safety risks, experts said.

There are currently around 40 commercial facilities that are applying CCUS to industrial processes and power generation. CCUS deployment has trailed behind expectations in the past, but momentum has grown substantially in recent years, with over 500 projects in various stages of development across the CCUS value chain, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The global agency has, however, been critical of the fossil fuel industry for advocating increased use of CCUS. “Oil and gas producers around the world need to make profound decisions about their future place in the global energy sector,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said on November 23. “The industry needs to commit to genuinely helping the world meet its energy needs and climate goals, which means letting go of the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution.”

That hasn’t stopped wealthy nations such as the US announcing major funding for CCUS technology. “We have very clear direction from the Congress that this is an issue that we need to be pursuing. We fully expect carbon capture to be part of the solution base and it will grow overtime,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said during a briefing at the Dubai summit. The US is carefully looking at carbon dioxide removal and has issued a strategy in this regard, said Richard Spinrad, US undersecretary of commerce.

Each CCUS system has high upfront costs, often upwards of $1 billion, which can be prohibitive for project developers, combined with a riskier revenue structure compared to other clean technologies, the WRI said.

These concerns have found echoes elsewhere as well. “There are also risks and uncertainties around the technological performance of CCUS operations. However, given tightening climate targets and increasing carbon prices, reducing emissions is not optional. Therefore, the cost and risks of CCUS should be compared with alternative decarbonisation pathways rather than with doing nothing,” the London School of Economics and Political Science said in a March 2023 research note.

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