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The writer chairs the Energy Transitions Commission
The COP28 climate conference will be held in Dubai in December. The chair of the event, Sultan al-Jaber, has set the goal of agreeing actions that can limit global warming to 1.5°C. That will only be possible if the energy system’s carbon emissions, currently around 34 gigatonnes a year, fall rapidly to net zero around 2050.
There are only two ways to achieve this: either quickly reduce the use of all fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) or offset 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 much faster than previously thought possible. The cost of electricity from solar is now 85 percent lower than in 2010. Wind power has recently been challenged by higher costs, particularly financing and turbines, but the long-term cost trend continues. being low.
Battery technology is progressing much faster than anticipated, driving the electrification of road transport: in China, 35 percent of all new passenger car sales are now electric.
We also now know how to reduce emissions to a level close to zero even in supposedly difficult sectors of the economy, such as aviation and shipping, steel, cement and chemicals.
Just six years ago, most experts believed that the main way to decarbonize iron production would be to add carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to blast furnaces still burning coking coal. But it is now clear that direct hydrogen reduction (eventually using 100 percent green hydrogen instead of natural gas) will soon play a major role, reducing demand for coking coal by more than 80 percent by 2050.
Overall, the Energy Transition Commission’s latest report projects that gas use could – and must – fall by 55 to 70 percent by 2050, oil use by 75 to 95 percent, and coal between 80 and 85 percent. The lower end of these ranges would be compatible with limiting global warming to around 1.7°C; the upper end, with a limit of 1.5 °C.
However, even those reductions would not be enough 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 have only recently been built.
The commission therefore sees a vital role for CCS applied to industrial processes, but also a limited one, with around 4 Gt per year of CO₂ captured and stored by 2050. Given that the combustion of fossil fuels currently produces around 32 Gt of CO₂ emissions per year, that means that more than 85 percent of these emissions reductions must come from reducing the use of fossil fuels and less than 15 percent from the application of carbon capture.
Limiting global warming to 1.5°C will also require significant carbon dioxide removal, achieved through nature-based solutions such as reforestation, or by capturing CO₂ directly from the air and storing it permanently underground. Both are technically viable and, with sufficient financing, up to 150 Gt of cumulative extractions could be achieved globally by 2050.
But current progress in deploying carbon capture technologies is disappointing. The volume of elimination credits purchased by governments, companies or financial institutions remains trivial. Unlike the costs of solar PV, wind, and batteries, CCS costs have not decreased significantly over the past decade, and the pace of CCS development is falling short of what is needed to fulfill even the limited role it plays. projects our commission.
There are two implications: First, we must accelerate the deployment of carbon capture and removal technologies. Second, given this slow progress, it would be reckless to assume that there will be higher levels of carbon capture and removal in the future than projected in our report, and use that to justify sustained large-scale use of fossil fuels.
Governments must therefore implement policies that help reduce demand for fossil fuels at the required rate and ensure that supply falls in line with this reduction. The world does not need the exploration of new oil and gas deposits. In fact, the vast majority of already proven fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, and while some investment is required to support adequate production in existing fields, the amount needed is far less than what oil and gas companies gas currently planned.
At COP28, nations should commit to rapidly reducing the use of all fossil fuels and reject the illusion that unlimited use of carbon capture can make continued high fossil fuel production compatible with limiting global warming. at a safe level.