The Broken Greenwashing Technology Undermining COP28
Protecting profits and share prices with pseudoscience and bad economics.
Sometimes, a turn of phrase makes all the difference. The sentence “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma” have very different meanings. If you pay attention to COP28, you will catch a similar spin. Rather than calling for the phase-out of fossil fuels, which all respected climate studies and climate bodies agree is essential to save the planet, the COP28 President Al Jaber and his oil company cohorts are calling for the “phase-out of fossil fuel emissions.” It sounds and feels similar at first glance, but dig a little deeper, and it’s just as morally corrupt as cannibalising an older relative. You see, they want to continue to pump out black gold and keep the status quo, global influence and wealth of oil nations, oil companies, and oil executives like Al Jaber, but offset the planet-wrecking emissions with CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage that isn’t naturally derived). But can CCS really do this? Or is this a thinly veiled bit of propaganda?
Before we dig into the number here, I must first address that CCS itself isn’t necessarily a broken or corrupt technology. In fact, it will play a vital role in our path to net-zero. The IEA states that CCS needs to capture approximately 1.5 Giga tons of CO2 per year by 2030 and 6 Giga tons by 2050 in order for us to reach net-zero. The problem comes in its application. In almost every viable net-zero pathway, CCS is only used to offset emissions from industries that are essential and difficult to decarbonise, such as chemical and cement production. It is never linked to oil production, and there is a very good reason for that, which we will come onto in a minute.
Despite the science pointing to CCS not being viable for the continued use of oil, that hasn’t stopped many from pushing it over the years. This push has reached a crescendo at COP28. You see, the carbon budget of the planet (how much extra carbon dioxide it can take before we break our climate goals) is nearly all used up. In other words, if we want to avoid the global catastrophe of unbridled climate change, we need to drastically reduce our emissions yesterday. As such, COP28 is the first climate summit where the pressure to actually put into legislation the phase-out of fossil fuels has been high enough to make it happen. Policymakers and governments know we are in the eleventh hour.
The oil nations (like the COP28 host nation, the UAE), oil companies and oil executives (like COP28 host Al Jaber) know this and see such legislation as a considerable threat to their profit and influence (even though they could use their current profits to dominate future renewable energy industries). They needed to find a way to keep their status quo and yet appear to meet the climate issues. This is where CCS came in, and almost every oil lobbyist, delegates from oil-based countries, and oil executive at COP28 (which amounts to over 2,400 delegates) are pushing continued oil production backed by CCS at the pivotal summit. In fact, many outside investors with cash invested in oil companies have latched onto this plan and are championing it.
But can CCS really enable oil companies to carry on drilling, as these people claim?
In short, no. Not at all.
There are three huge issues here. Scale, economics and longevity.
Let’s start with scale. Currently, the oil and gas industry emits a whopping 11.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. So, let’s see how big of a CCS facility (using reliable Direct Air Capture) we would need to offset this.
One of the most affordable, efficient and reliable CCS operators on the planet is Climeworks. They have operated a breakthrough DAC CCS facility in Hinwil, Switzerland, for a few years now, making it well-established. How many of these facilities would we need to offset 11.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year?
Well, this site captures 900 tons of carbon dioxide annually, takes up 90 square meters of land area, costs $4 million to build and takes 1MWh of energy to capture a ton of carbon dioxide. As such, the oil industry would have to build 12,444,444 Hinwil-sized facilities to capture their 11.2 billion tonnes of annual emissions between now and 2050 (when we need to reach net-zero). That equates to building 1,307 Hinwil-sized facilities every single day for the next 27 years.
This mega CCS project would take up 1,120 km² of land area. But, it also requires carbon-neutral power to ensure it isn’t actually adding to atmospheric emissions, so we will need to build an adjacent gargantuan solar farm. Each year, a square kilometre of solar makes around 86,666 MWh of solar energy, meaning we would need 129,232 km² of solar panels to power this mega CCS facility.
The total area taken up by this giant CCS site and its solar farm is the same size as Greece! It will also cost an arm and a leg. At current prices, the 12,444,444 CCS plants alone will cost $49 trillion, and the vast solar farm, which currently costs $111 million per km², will cost $124 billion for a total cost of $49.124 trillion! For some sense of scale here, the global oil and gas industry posted record profits last year, totalling $4 trillion.
This is one of the reasons why an analysis by Global Witness found that Al Jaber’s oil company (ADNOC) would take 343 years to capture all the CO2 emissions it will produce in just the next six years. Quite simply, it can’t grow CCS fast enough. This explains why Al Jaber has conceded that fossil fuel phase-out is “inevitable”, as they know they simply can’t use CCS to carry on as they are. Nonetheless, he is still pushing CCS to extend the oil and gas industry’s lifespan.
As I alluded to, there is also a massive price issue here.
Take Chevron, one of the many oil companies openly buying CCS services to appear more climate-conscious. But it is only a drop in the ocean. Chevron emits a vast 697 million tonnes of annual carbon dioxide emissions (including operation emissions and emissions from using their fuels). How much would it cost to offset that? Well, J.P. Morgan recently struck a $20 million deal with Climeworks to offset 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, putting the price of CCS at $800 per ton. So, offsetting their 697 million tonne emissions using Climeworks would cost Chevron roughly $530 billion! Or, to put it another way, 15 times more than their annual profits!
Now, the IEA does say that CCS services will get cheaper in time, and by 2050, they should cost around $100 per ton of CO2. But even at this bargain-basement price, the price of offsetting all of Chevron’s emissions is 1.9 times their annual profit. And that is calculated with their record profits!
This is why the IEA has said that CCS-dependent pathways to net-zero are 50% more expensive than those dependent on renewables. This is backed by a new report from the University of Oxford, which found that net-zero pathways heavily dependent on CCS will cost at least $1tn more per year than scenarios involving renewables. Quite simply, renewables are a far cheaper, more practical way to net-zero.
But oil-linked CCS has another problem. There are only about 50 years left of oil and gas reserves on the planet. Once you have spent these billions building all this CCS infrastructure, it will only be a few decades before it all becomes useless, as the funds to operate them will dry up once the oil and gas industry dries up.
It makes no economic or business sense to even start using CCS to reduce the oil industry’s emissions. Those funds are better spent investing in genuine decarbonising technologies, such as wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear power.
Despite all of this, oil companies are pushing for CCS to enable their future. And they are pushing hard.
Take Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental, one of the US’s biggest oil companies and an active and vocal COP28 delegate. She recently said that CCS “is going to be the technology that helps to preserve our industry” and gives it “a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed”. She even suggested that CCS would enable them to get more oil out of the ground right now.
Needless to say, none of this matches up to the science or data. Yet, she, along with the thousands of fossil fuel-linked delegates at COP28, are going to push this pseudoscience rhetoric in opposition to the scientifically and economically sound plan of instigating global fossil fuel phase-out legislation.
COP28 is our last chance saloon to save the planet. The IEA has repeatedly called for the use of fossil fuels to halve by 2035 and to stop investment in new fossil fuels immediately if we are to mitigate the coming climate apocalypse. To meet both of these, we need watertight global legislation ASAP. It simply can’t wait, as a successful fossil fuel phase-out will take years to prepare for an initiative. But, these oil moguls, oil nations and oil lobbyists are pushing a pseudoscience-based nonsensical alternative that protects their interests, profits and influence. Do they actually believe CCS is their saviour? No, I don’t think so; the economics are too glaringly broken. However, almost all governments and influential political bodies around the world have some level of global influence derived from oil. You see, most nations depend on fossil fuel import or export, and as such, if you control oil, you can control and influence other country’s politics. As such, these calls for a CCS-backed oil industry are just a dog whistle, enabling those who want to keep their oil-derived power, money and influence alive for as long as possible, with an at-face-value legitimate alternative to the essential eradication of the oil industry.
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