by Hugh Richards
20 October 2023
I have been a supporter of the Carbon Balance Initiative since its inception. It promotes the concepts of “durable net zero” and “geological net zero”, the latter being a key component of the former. Durable net zero means not over-relying on “nature-based solutions” (or natural CO2 uptake by oceans and the biosphere) in the long term, but insisting that whatever extraction of fossil carbon remains by mid-century must be balanced by equivalent geological storage of CO2 – i.e. geological net zero.
Storage of CO2 for geological timescales could be achieved in various ways, but it seems the only technique that is ready to be scaled up in this coming critical decade is carbon capture and storage (CCS) applied to industrial point sources such as power stations, chemical plants or cement works. However, CCS is a “non-improving technology” in terms of cost. So said former US Vice-President Al Gore in his coruscating TED Countdown talk in August, in which he lambasted fossil fuel companies for claiming the prospect of scaling up CCS as somehow giving licence for further unconstrained extraction.
That narrative can be challenged by insisting on a re-framing of the rationale for CCS. Among the many negative adjectives applied to CCS is “uneconomic”. That is a profit-driven perspective coming from the users of fossil fuels, because almost all legislation and policy on climate is framed in terms of reducing (net) emissions, rather than reducing extraction of fossil carbon. Here Al Gore can help, with his description of burning fossil fuels as treating the atmosphere as an “open sewer”. Others have made the comparison with water services companies in countries like the UK; it is as if they were able to sell water to consumers but be under no obligation to treat the resulting sewage (except perhaps the effluents from their own buildings). The point about the concept of Carbon Takeback Obligation advocated by Carbon Balance is that it is an obligation – a government-imposed condition on a licence to extract (or import) fossil fuels, not a voluntary cost to be borne, whether by the emitter or the extractor (or by government).
But even if Carbon Takeback Obligations were imposed by governments globally, there is no guarantee that the cumulative net carbon emissions before geological net zero is reached would stay within a carbon budget compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is mainly because the scale of CCS that could physically be deployed in the coming decade or so would be too small to do much towards the drastic reductions in carbon emissions needed in that time; something else is needed to commensurately reduce fossil carbon extraction.
Many in the climate policy arena seem to be pinning their hopes on destruction of demand for fossil fuels, pointing to the faster than expected exponential growth in renewable energy. But there is no guarantee that this growth will in fact displace fossil fuel use, and it seems implausible that such displacement could amount to anything like 50% by 2030, the most commonly stated near-term goal.
In an interview for the “Outrage+Optimism” podcast in September, Al Gore suggested that unless the UNFCCC COP process can be reformed to take away the de facto veto that petro-states (especially Saudi Arabia) have on any negotiated text, “the world needs to have a serious conversation about whether to build a new process”. He describes the climate crisis as “80% a fossil fuel crisis”, which begs the question whether the new process he thinks may be needed should focus on fossil carbon and do so by addressing supply (extraction) rather than demand (emissions).
The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FF-NPT) initiative , which seeks a global treaty to phase out all extraction of fossil fuels, continues to gain support. However, like the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, it seems in danger of remaining a symbolic initiative, akin to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, rather than a (moderately) effective one akin to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (with its well-resourced monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency). Proponents of a FF-NPT have so far been resistant to the idea of incorporating a goal of geological net zero, and something like CTBO to get there, even though that might make such a treaty more acceptable to countries with fossil fuel reserves.
Despite incoming COP28 President Sultan Ahmed al Jaber’s July Letter to Parties saying that “Phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential” and “We must take a holistic approach that brings together both the supply and the demand side in an integrated manner”, there do not seem to be signs of a breakthrough in that direction. But surely COP28 will bring the question of supply-side control of fossil fuels into focus as never before, and perhaps Al Gore and others will join the dots and help create the political space for a treaty for controlling fossil fuel extraction and delivering geological net zero to emerge.
(Please note: posts on these blog pages are the personal views of the authors only and are not intended to represent any agreed or general view on the part of GlosCAN.org.)