Don’t be fooled: CCS is no solution to oil and gas emissions

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At the Cop28 climate conference taking place in Dubai, oil and gas producers are counting on carbon capture and storage (CCS) for a social license to keep drilling as usual. Don’t fall for it.

While it can be helpful at the margins, CCS cannot possibly deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the scale needed to avert climate disaster. This can only happen if the main sources of emissions – fossil fuels – are phased out.

CCS is expected to deliver less than a tenth of the cumulative carbon dioxide emission reductions, over the 2023-2050 period, needed to hold global warming to 1.5C.

In the International Energy Agency net zero emission (NZE) scenario, CCS captures approximately 1.5 billion tons (GT) of CO2 in 2030, and 6 GT by 2050. But very little of that is applied to emissions from fossil fuel production and combustion. It is primarily used to capture CO2 from sectors where emissions are harder and more expensive to reduce, such as cement production or chemicals.

Is the IEA NZE scenario the only way to achieve net-zero emission and limit the temperature increase to 1.5C? Certainly not. There are different scenarios out there, including those of the Energy Transition Commission and McKinsey. And scenarios coming out of models are not to be confused with reality. The fossil fuel industry claims it can achieve the same objectives as in the IEA NZE scenario, while producing more oil and gas, by relying more heavily on CCS. Is this true?

50% more expensive

Another IEA scenario, the stated policies scenario, gives the answer. Reaching net-zero carbon emissions in this way would require the capture of 32 GT of CO2 emissions by 2050, including 23 GT through direct air capture (DAC).

At this scale, DAC alone would require 26,000 TWh of electricity to operate, which is more than the total global electricity demand today. Reaching net-zero emissions in this way would be 50% more expensive (for an annual investment cost of $6.9 trillions) than in the IEA NZE scenario.

People in the oil and gas industry know there is zero probability of this high-CCS scenario coming true. They are not even seriously investing in it, but waiting for governments, through taxpayers, to pick up the bill. The reality is they are just fooling us one more time, to buy time we can’t afford to waste in dealing with the climate crisis.

For all these reasons, framing the objective of the energy and climate transitions in the Cop28 decision text as “phasing out unabated [i.e. without CCS] fossil fuel emissions”, without specifying the order of magnitude of CCS in the overall portfolio of zero-carbon energy solutions (approximately 10%), and its primary use (hard-to-abate sectors, outside the oil and gas industry), would be profoundly misleading.

Focus on real solutions

It would also be a missed opportunity for Cop28 to send a clear signal of where investments should be going in the energy sector, to ensure climate safety as much as energy security and future profits of energy companies: energy efficiency and savings; the deployment of renewable energies and other zero-carbon energy solutions (green hydrogen, sustainable biofuels, synthetic fuels, etc.); the complete decarbonization of the power sector (electricity generation); and the electrification of energy demand.

Today, the oil and gas industry is not part of the energy transition: it represent only 1% of the total investment ($1.8 trillion in 2022) in clean energy solutions, globally. And it invests only about 2.5% of its own record-high profits into clean energy, as opposed to the further expansion of oil and gas.

What should be the ratio of investments between zero-carbon energy solutions and the maintenance of existing oil and gas facilities, to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C? 50/50 by 2030, says the IEA in its fossil fuels special report, before it shifts further in the direction of a complete phase out from fossil fuels.

These should be the real objectives of Cop28, in relation to the energy transition. Otherwise, we are just mixing up the signal and the noise, confusing what should be the priority (phasing-out fossil fuels, phasing-in zero-carbon energy solutions) and what is a small part of the strategy (CCS) for a successful energy transition.

Laurence Tubiana is the CEO and Emmanuel Guérin is a fellow at the European Climate Foundation.

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