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The writer chairs the Energy Transitions Commission
In December, the COP28 climate conference will meet in Dubai. The event’s president, Sultan al-Jaber, has set the objective of agreeing actions that could limit global warming to 1.5C. That will only be possible if carbon emissions from the energy system, currently running at about 34 gigatonnes a year, fall rapidly to reach net zero by around 2050.
There are only two ways to achieve that: either rapidly cutting the use of all fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — or offsetting their use by capturing CO₂ and storing it. The crucial question is the balance between the two.
Technological progress means we can reduce the use of fossil fuels far faster than was once thought possible. The cost of electricity from solar power is now 85 per cent lower than it was in 2010. Wind power has recently been challenged by higher costs, particularly of financing and turbines, but the long-term cost trend is still down.
Battery technology is progressing far faster than anticipated, powering the electrification of road transport: in China, 35 per cent of all new passenger car sales are now electric.
We also now know how to reduce emissions close to zero even in supposedly hard sectors of the economy such as aviation and shipping, steel, cement and chemicals.
Only six years ago, most experts believed that the main way to decarbonise iron production would be to add carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) to blast furnaces still burning coking coal. But it is now clear that hydrogen direct reduction — eventually using 100 per cent green hydrogen instead of natural gas — will soon play a major role, cutting coking coal demand by more than 80 per cent by 2050.
Overall, the latest report from the Energy Transitions Commission projects that gas use could — and needs to — fall 55-70 per cent by 2050, oil use 75 -95 per cent and coal by 80-85 per cent. The lower end of these ranges would be compatible with limiting global warming to around 1.7C: the higher with a 1.5C limit.
However, even such reductions would not be sufficient to limit global warming to those temperatures without some CCS. In cement production, the chemical process produces CO₂, regardless of the energy source used. In other sectors, some continued use of fossil fuels plus CCS may sometimes be the lowest-cost solution, particularly where existing fuel-burning assets were only recently built.
The commission therefore sees a vital role for CCS as applied to industrial processes — but also a limited one, with about 4Gt a year of CO₂ captured and stored by 2050. Since fossil-fuel combustion currently produces about 32Gt of CO₂ emissions a year, that means more than 85 per cent of these emission reductions must come from cutting fossil-fuel use and less than 15 per cent from applying carbon capture.
Limiting global warming to 1.5C will also require significant carbon dioxide removals, achieved either by nature-based solutions such as reforestation, or by capturing CO₂ direct from the air and storing it permanently under ground. Both are technically feasible, and with sufficient finance up to 150Gt of cumulative removals globally could be achieved by 2050.
But current progress in deploying carbon capture technologies is disappointing. The volume of removal credits being purchased by governments, companies or financial institutions remains trivial. Unlike solar photovoltaic, wind and battery costs, CCS costs have not come down significantly over the past decade — and the pace of CCS development falls short of that needed to meet even the limited role that our commission projects.
Two implications follow: first, we must speed up the deployment of carbon capture and removal technologies. Second, given this slow progress, it would be imprudent to assume that there will be higher future levels of carbon capture and removals than projected in our report, and to use that to justify sustained large-scale use of fossil fuels.
Governments must therefore put in place policies both to help drive down fossil-fuel demand at the required pace, and to ensure that supply falls in line with this reduction. The world does not need exploration for new oil and gasfields. Indeed, the vast majority of already proven fossil-fuel reserves must be left in the ground, and while some investment is required to support adequate production from existing fields, the amount needed is far less than oil and gas companies currently plan.
At COP28, nations should commit to rapidly phasing down the use of all fossil fuels and reject the delusion that unlimited use of carbon capture can make continued high fossil-fuel production compatible with limiting global warming to a safe level.
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