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What does ‘unabated’ fossil fuels mean — and can carbon capture help achieve net-zero?

Context- The phrase “unabated” fossil fuels was a key topic of discussion at this year’s COP climate summit. Fro example, countries agreed to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power” in a new deal that was agreed upon during the meeting on Wednesday, December 13. The phrase has been under scrutiny in recent years due to its association with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, which is a subject of debate between oil and gas producers and climate experts.

(Credits- Visual Capitalist)

What are ‘unabated’ fossil fuels?

  • When it comes to fossil fuels, “unabated” means doing nothing to reduce the carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that are released from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas.
  • Conversely, “abated” refers to the attempts to decrease the release of polluting substances to an acceptable level. However, there isn’t any clarity on what this level is and how to get there. Moreover, there is no international or agreed-upon definition of the two phrases.
  • The closest we come to a universally accepted definition is the one mentioned in the footnote of last year’s benchmark report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific advisory body. It says unabated fossil fuels are those “without interventions that substantially reduce” greenhouse gas emissions.
  • That would mean capturing at least 90% of CO2 from power plants, or up to 80% of the methane that leaks during energy production and transport, the report suggests.
  • Discussions around fossil fuel abatement largely revolve around CCS technologies — they capture emissions from power stations or industrial facilities and store them underground. But those discussions remain deeply polarised.
  • While Oil and gas-producing companies and countries see carbon capture as a key component in plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, climate activists and experts suggest that its role is limited.
  • In July, the European Union and 17 nations including Germany, France, Chile, New Zealand and climate-vulnerable island states, in a statement, said carbon capture technologies are no substitute for a drastic cut in fossil fuels and they shouldn’t be overused.

How beneficial are carbon capture and storage technologies?

  • In its report, Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said power and industrial plants that are equipped with modern CCS technologies capture around 90% of the CO2.
  • However, a 2022 study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) — a global think tank that examines issues related to energy markets, trends, and policies — found that most of the 13 flagship CCS projects worldwide that it analysed have either underperformed or failed entirely.
  • Another analysis by Climate Analytics, a Germany-based climate science and policy institute, revealed that reliance on CCS could release an extra 86 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere between 2020 and 2050.
  • “If carbon capture rates only reach 50% rather than 95%, and upstream methane emissions are not reduced to low levels, this would pump 86 billion tonnes of GHG (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere – equivalent to more than double the global CO2 emissions in 2023,” the study said.
  • It added that discussions around fossil fuels abatement are creating the false impression that CCS would help limit average global temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius even when there is an expansion of fossil fuel projects.
  • “However, scenarios that achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit in a sustainable manner show a near complete phase-out of fossil fuels by around 2050 with only a tiny amount of fossil CCS,” the analysis noted.
  • CCS technologies are also very expensive. It’s cheaper to shut down a coal plant and replace it with some combination of wind, solar and batteries in comparison to attaching a carbon capture device to the plant

Way Forward- The deal agreed upon at COP28 on Wednesday requires countries to phase-down the use of unabated coal power. However, many climate vulnerable nations and experts are concerned that this would allow countries and fossil fuel companies to continue burning coal as long as they capture the emissions and store them underground.

Syllabus- GS-3; Climate Change

Source- Indian Express

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