DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The final agreement at the global climate talks in the United Arab Emirates calls for quickly slashing planet-warming pollution by in part promoting technology to limit emissions from fossil fuel-powered facilities that are the hardest to clean up.
But the UAE’s only carbon capture project has not led to the “deep, rapid and sustained” pollution reductions called for in the deal, according to independent analysts.
The oil-rich country opened its only carbon capture installation in 2016 at an Emirates Steel Arkan facility. Operated by Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., the so-called Al Reyadah carbon capture project last year prevented less than a third of the plant’s emissions from escaping into the atmosphere, steel company documents show. The carbon collected at the steel mill is used to help ADNOC produce more oil, a process that analysts say further limits its effectiveness as a climate fix.
“Rather than a sign of [carbon capture’s] potential, I see this project as an indicator of the technology’s failings,” said Simon Nicholas, a former investment banker who is now an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit environmental research group.
Officials with the COP28 climate talks, which is led by ADNOC’s CEO Sultan al-Jaber, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The steel company also did not respond to questions.
After this story was published, an ADNOC spokesperson called the analysis “misleading” and noted that the company has committed to building projects that will increase the UAE’s carbon capture capacity to nearly 4 million tons of CO2 per year, with a goal of trapping 10 million tons annually by the end of the decade.
“Carbon capture technology is a key tool to responsibly reduce carbon emissions” and meet global climate goals, said the spokesperson, who declined to be named in the story.
Renewed attention to the UAE’s efforts to use carbon capture technology comes as Saudi Arabia and other petrostates at COP28 have pushed to scale up deployment of carbon capture and other costly approaches to tackle emissions rather than phasing down fossil fuels — the main cause of climate change. The talks ended Wednesday with a historic agreement to transition away from oil, gas and coal.
The Biden administration has promised hundreds of millions of dollars to support U.S. carbon capture projects but also acknowledged that the technology has a limited role to play in the fight against climate change. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental think tank, estimates that carbon capture has the potential to cut 15 percent of global emissions.
At the climate summit, UAE officials have touted the country’s limited experience with carbon capture.
“The UAE is a leader in the region, developing and deploying industrial-scale carbon capture technology,” COP28 Director-General Majid Al Suwaidi said during a roundtable meeting on carbon capture last week.
Aside from the Al Reyadah facility, there are two operational carbon capture projects in the Middle East, according to data collected by the Global CCS Institute, a think tank that promotes carbon capture and storage installations. Only one of those projects — at a liquefied natural gas facility in Qatar — pumps the carbon it captures into dedicated geologic storage.
Other countries at COP28 have offered a more measured embrace of carbon capture.
During a closed-door session Monday, Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s minister of foreign affairs, said he comes from a country “that very much believes in carbon capture and storage. But for that precise reason I can also testify that is not the solution to everything.”
The European Union wants to put constraints on the use of carbon capture technology that would limit it to “hard to abate sectors,” such as cement and steel production. Those restrictions were included in the deal signed Wednesday, though it doesn’t specify which industries are included.
Climate vulnerable countries worry that including language on carbon capture could create loopholes that might open the door to increased oil and gas production and take the focus off reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
A 39-member alliance of small island states said the agreement “sputters” in significant areas, including the reference to abatement technology, such as carbon capture. “We are being asked to endorse technologies that could result in actions that undermine our efforts,” said Anne Rasmussen, lead negotiator for the Pacific island nation of Samoa.
At the end of 2022, there were a total of 41 commercial carbon capture facilities in operation around the world, although the Global CCS Institute says more than 350 are in some stage of development. Whether those projects become a reality remains to be seen.
“Most of them will never be built,” predicted Nicholas, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis researcher. “To me, it is very clear that [carbon capture] is not a solution.”
Years before hosting the international climate talks, the UAE began talking up the potential of carbon capture.
“The success of this project will definitely be a catalyst for similar projects in the UAE and across the region,” al-Jaber said in a 2014 video about Al Reyadah that was produced by Masdar, the state-owned renewables firm. The COP28 president founded Masdar and continues to serve as the company’s chair.
Al Reyadah is engineered to capture up to 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year from Emirates Steel Arkan’s facility. The trapped carbon is then transported 27 miles via pipeline to an ADNOC oil field, where it’s pumped underground to free up more hydrocarbons.
Emirates Steel Arkan and ADNOC haven’t disclosed how much pollution the project traps at the steel facility or the net amount it stores away, after taking into account its role in producing additional oil.
But the steelmaking operation last year emitted the equivalent of more than 2 million tons of CO2, a tally that takes into account the carbon captured by Al Reyadah, according to the company’s most recent sustainability report. That means that if the carbon capture project operated at full capacity in 2022, it trapped about 28 percent of the facility’s planet-warming emissions.
Most of the carbon pollution associated with steelmaking is from burning coal or natural gas to create the high temperatures needed to convert iron into steel.
Instead of installing costly technology to capture those emissions, some steelmakers are now looking to use clean-burning hydrogen made with renewable energy for iron smelting. That includes Emirates Steel Arkan, which last month announced plans with Masdar to develop a “green hydrogen” steelmaking pilot project in the UAE.
While carbon capture hasn’t resulted in deep pollution reductions in the UAE steel industry, it shows promise in other areas, according to Chris Bataille, a research fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
“We’re going to need CCS for the cement sector because 60 percent of the emissions are from process emissions, they’re not from combustion,” said Bataille, who was the lead author of the industry-focused chapter in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report. The expensive technology could also be commercially viable in subsets of other industries, he said.
“But it’s not going to be a widespread solution,” said Bataille, who spoke to E&E News while preparing to fly back from Dubai. “It’s not going to be something that allows us to keep on using a whole lot of fossil fuels.”
Most of the discussion about carbon capture at COP28 “is a lot of arguing about something that doesn’t really exist yet,” he said.
Corbin Hiar reported from Washington. Sara Schonhardt reported from Dubai.