A study found that 80% of corporate advocacy on carbon capture does not align with established scientific principles. Photo: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC/Flickr

Heavy reliance on CCS to cost trillions, advocacy for tech contradicts science: Reports

While emphasis on using Carbon Capture and Storage is mounting at COP28, reports reveal that corporate advocacy on carbon capture does not align with established scientific principles and heavy dependence on the technology will cost trillions of dollars 

Talks on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) are prominent at the COP28 as major oil and gas producing countries are expected to unveil shared carbon storage goals.  However, two recent reports warn why heavy dependence on CCS is not a great idea. 

A new report from Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment has found that relying largely on CCS  to reach net-zero targets would be “hugely economically damaging”, costing at least $30 trillion more than a route based on renewable energy, energy efficiency and electrification. Let’s look into this report first. 

The Oxford report provided cost estimates for two different sets of pathways to net zero in 2050—one that uses CCS to mitigate about one tenth of today’s emissions, and the other that uses it to mitigate about half of today’s emissions.

It was found that the high-CCS route would cost approximately one trillion dollars per year more than the low-CCS route, leading to a total additional cost of about $30 trillion by 2050.  The researchers believed this is almost certainly an underestimate of the real difference. According to the World Bank, $30 trillion is roughly twice what it would cost to decarbonise China.

Zero decline in CCS cost over four decades 

The report added that the cost of CCS implementation has not declined at all in 40 years, in contrast to renewable technologies like solar, wind, and batteries, which have fallen in cost dramatically. 

“Any hopes that the cost of CCS will decline in a similar way to renewable technologies like solar and batteries appear misplaced”, said Rupert Way, Honorary Research Associate at the Oxford Smith School. “Our findings indicate a lack of technological learning in any part of the process, from CO2 capture to burial, even though all elements of the chain have been in use for decades”. 

While Way said some level of CCS will certainly be necessary to achieve net zero, the analysis showed this should be reserved for essential use cases in hard to abate sectors. This is because renewables are already cheaper than unabated fossil fuels in many applications, and are only expected to get even cheaper in future, further increasing their cost advantage. Therefore, according to the report, rolling out CCS throughout the economy, rather than just in a handful of essential sectors, makes little sense from a financial perspective.

Low-CCS route for the win

Authors of the report said taking a low-CCS route to net-zero is also more benign from a social and ecological perspective. “We found that land use requirements for energy crops are smaller in low-CCS pathways by 1.3 million square kilometres on average, an area equivalent to about half the size of Saudi Arabia,” said co-author Andrea Bacilieri at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, University of Oxford.

 “The land use changes required by heavy reliance on biomass—often coupled with CCS—would likely threaten essential resources, like food and water, impacting their availability and prices. It could also further pose risks to human rights, and put into jeopardy biodiversity and ecosystem services, deteriorating the resilience of our ecosystems.” 

The report also noted that CCS is not currently being developed even at the scale envisaged in the low-CCS pathways. The volume of CO2 being captured and stored around the world has approximately doubled in the last decade to 49 MtCO2/yr, but following the low-CCS pathway would entail approximately a 13-fold scale-up by 2030, and following high-CCS pathways would entail an 85-fold increase. Meanwhile, 70% of current CCS projects use captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery rather than storing it, a revenue stream certain to shrink as global oil demand falls, the report warned. 

“Governments need to get serious about CCS,” said Richard Black, study author and honorary research fellow at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, “And that means three things: scaling up investment, sticking to essential use cases, and being very clear that CCS cannot be a blanket solution. CCS will likely be needed for some industries and perhaps for negative emissions, but seeing it as a way to compensate for ongoing fossil fuel burning is economically illiterate. Centring national and global decarbonisation strategies on a rapid scale-up of renewables and the near-elimination of fossil fuel use will leave us better off and we know it can be done.” 

Over 80% of corporate advocacy on CCS contradicting science 

Another study by influenceMap revealed alarming disparities between corporate advocacy related to carbon capture and storage, and found that 80% of corporate advocacy on carbon capture does not align with established scientific principles, i.e. with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Science-Based Policy guidance. 

Researchers, analysing how business and finance are impacting the climate crisis, examined more than 750 instances of corporate advocacy related to CCS between 2021 and 2023 at more than 500 of the world’s largest companies and at 250 industry associations.

This advocacy included any attempts to influence CCS-related policy or to push for CCS inclusion in climate policies. “In the past, fossil fuel companies have attempted to undermine public trust in the science of what causes climate change, but now the focus has shifted to spreading confusion about the science of climate change solutions,” said Sofia Basheer, an author of the new study and a senior analyst at InfluenceMap.

The analysis found three major recurring claims within corporate CCS advocacy that conflict with science. These are promoting continued oil and gas expansion by pushing for CCS use, positioning CCS as central to global climate targets, and touting CCS as beneficial for job creation and community support.

Oil and gas players going big on CCS advocacy

The report found that oil, gas, and utility companies dominate corporate CCS advocacy (58% of all advocacy on the issue is conducted by these sectors). They utilised a wide spectrum of policy influence tactics—from public relations and advertising campaigns to regulatory lobbying—to promote the technology. According to the analysis, some of the entities that are most active on CCS-related policy advocacy include Occidental Petroleum, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Santos, and Cenovus, and industry associations such as the Australian Energy Producers, International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and American Petroleum Institute (API).

Interestingly, the analysis also found evidence of a coordinated playbook shared among the global oil and gas sector for CCS advocacy, led by industry groups like the Australian Energy Producers, International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and American Petroleum Institute (API). 

16 of the G20 countries hold similar positions 

The findings suggested that the industry has been successful in its efforts to influence government positions as 16 of the G-20 countries had adopted similar CCS positions to fossil fuel companies before COP28. 

In the run up to the COP28, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency stated that “continuing with business-as-usual for oil and gas while hoping a vast deployment of carbon capture will cut the emissions is fantasy.” 

“Oil and gas companies have been doing everything they can to avoid concrete action to phase out fossil fuels – including by pushing for carbon capture and storage. If governments can’t agree on a science-based plan to get to net zero, and fossil fuels remain a significant part of the equation, the oil and gas industries will have won a major victory,” said Basheer. 

CarbonCopy has earlier reported that while a measured approach to CCUS could indeed evolve into a win-win situation that delivers emissions reductions and economic benefits, over-reliance on these methods could be more harmful than beneficial.