One word could set global climate negotiations on a trajectory to phase out fossil fuels or allow them to continue powering factories, cars and homes.
The word is “unabated.”
It refers to fossil fuels whose planet-warming emissions are allowed to enter the atmosphere, rather than being caught through technologies such as carbon capture systems. And its presence in international negotiations is driving a wedge between countries that view abatement as a free pass for oil, coal and natural gas to keep flowing and those who say that allowing fossil fuels, in conjunction with carbon capture technologies, offers an orderly way to address climate change.
The Biden administration has made the term a centerpiece of its climate agenda by calling for a phase-out of “unabated fossil fuels.”
This year’s talks in the United Arab Emirates are likely to raise the stakes on that language since the nation is a major oil and gas producer with plans to expand production. The man presiding over the summit, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, is an oil executive who has called for more investments in technologies that limit fossil fuel emissions despite questions about their feasibility.
The UAE isn’t alone. The U.S. is moving ahead with plans to increase oil drilling, adding to its position as the world’s biggest petroleum producer.
“We have to either capture the emissions or don’t make them — one of the two things,” climate envoy John Kerry told E&E News last month.
“Without that, we’re not going to get emissions reductions that we need to get in order to achieve our goal, which is [to] limit the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees or as close to it as possible,” he added.
The increasing use of unabated in international climate talks comes as scientists point to a limited role for carbon capture and storage and as recent reports reveal that companies have failed to put it to use. At the same time, some major fossil fuel producers such as the U.S. are providing generous incentives for carbon capture projects.
Those incongruities could set the stage for a showdown in Dubai next month. The European Union included the phaseout of “unabated” fossil fuels in its negotiating position Monday, but the bloc of 27 nations is divided over the phrase and has sought to carve out exceptions that would limit the use of carbon capture to sectors where emissions are hard to abate, such as cement.
“A lot of this really comes down to how does abatement get addressed. If there’s language on [carbon capture and storage, or CCS], what does it say? Does it have some sort of clarity about the limitations of CCS and where it should be focused?” asked David Waskow, director of international climate at the World Resources Institute. “These kinds of questions are where it actually gets down to much more policy brass tacks.”
Open to interpretation
Unabated first appeared at global climate talks in the 2021 agreement reached in Glasgow, Scotland, with a call to phase down “unabated coal power.” It was quickly overshadowed by a fierce debate over whether to phase out or phase down coal.
Loosely defined, unabated emissions are greenhouse gases that are dumped into the air without any effort to capture or limit them. It comes as countries and companies are investing $6.4 billion in carbon capture technologies worldwide, according to estimates by the research firm BloombergNEF.
It’s not a new concept. A 2005 special report on carbon capture and storage by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t contain the word unabated, but it did ignite a debate around the idea that large amounts of fossil fuels could continue to be used — and possibly even grow, said Gregory Nemet, an environmental policy expert at the University of Wisconsin.
IPCC assessments in 2014 and 2022 each mention the word unabated, with a footnote in the latest report providing a somewhat convoluted definition of the term.
“A few parties came out very aggressively wanting this abated, unabated language in there right in front of fossil fuels, because otherwise, we just want a fossil fuel phase out or phase down,” said Chris Bataille, a researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a lead author of the latest IPCC summary for policymakers.
What counts as abated fossil fuels could help determine whether the world limits global temperature rise — but there are no universal standards yet that mandate how much carbon has to be captured or removed for a fossil fuel to qualify.
That ambiguity is raising concerns that it could open the door to projects that could increase emissions rather than lower them. It also shows how countries can use language in international agreements to serve their own interests.
“Fundamentally, it’s about a political collision between those parties that want to keep using fossil fuels and those parties that want to phase them out completely,” said Bataille, adding that for those who agree to phase out “unabated fossil fuels,” the implication is we’ll keep using them.
Bataille co-authored a paper currently up for peer review that argued the term abated should only apply when fossil fuel emissions are reduced by 90 percent or more, with carbon removal technology left to tackle the remaining pollution.
If poorly defined, the term unabated “could leave the interpretation of the commitment wide open,” allowing for low capture rates of carbon, the paper states.
Some leaders worry the use of unabated gives industry permission to continue producing the world’s dirtiest forms of energy as long as they promise to get rid of its emissions.
“We call for a fossil fuel phase-out and demand that abatement technology not be used to green-light continued expansion,” David Kabua, president of the Marshall Islands, said at last month’s U.N. climate summit in New York. He was among a group of 20 leaders — none of them major fossil fuel exporters — that issued a similar statement ahead of that meeting.
Kerry acknowledges that the term unabated means “something different to different people” and that countries’ intentions aren’t all the same. He said he hopes to persuade them against using it to continue polluting.
“It should be very clear,” he said. “What it means is capturing the emissions to keep you on a track to reach the Paris goals. Very straightforward.”
Expensive and unproven
There are different ways to abate carbon emissions, and research shows some amount of carbon removal will be needed for the world to reach net zero. Carbon removal aims to pull CO2 from the air and oceans rather than abate emissions from industrial smokestacks.
The challenge is that few abated fossil fuel plants are actually being built. And emissions need to start falling dramatically to get to net zero, according to analysts.
A recent report from the International Energy Agency found that less than 5 percent of carbon capture projects in the pipeline had reached final investment decisions as of June.
Its report, an update of a 2021 road map, scales back the IEA’s estimates for how much carbon capture, utilization and storage would contribute to reaching the Paris targets of preventing temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, warning against too heavy a reliance on technologies that it said “are expensive and unproven.”
“What we have done in this edition was to do a reality check on really how fast can each technology be deployed in the market, and this is what we came up with,” said Sara Budinis, an energy analyst at the IEA who worked on the analysis.
Most carbon capture facilities are designed to catch around 90 percent of the CO2 they produce. That’s the economic and technological “sweet spot” in terms of costs versus abatement, Budinis said. But that’s not happening for a variety of reasons.
Many facilities are also using captured CO2 to produce more oil, a process known as enhanced oil recovery. That’s currently the main revenue model for carbon capture systems, said Budinis, adding that it makes reaching net zero harder.
Kerry admits that he’s skeptical of whether carbon capture technologies can be scaled up. But he’s also trying to be realistic about what’s needed to help countries, including his own, reach their climate goals.
“We’re not in a place where we have the luxury of being selective about eliminating that option or this option. We need to see what’s going to work,” he said in the interview with E&E.
But other experts say the role of carbon capture and storage is increasingly smaller in a world where cheap, clean options like solar and wind are taking off.
“There’s a case for it, it’s just not a central pillar of this kind of net-zero plan, whereas 15 years ago it really was,” said Nemet of the University of Wisconsin.
“If you look at what’s happened over the last 15 years, we just have so little deployment of CCS it’s hard to want to hang your hat on that kind of technology going forward.”
Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.