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The word ‘unabated’ has become commonplace in climate diplomacy in recent years and it will figure heavily at COP28 in Dubai.

Unabated is used in the context of fossil fuels, where no attempt is made to capture emissions. Almost all fossil fuels (99.9%) are currently unabated. The concept has come about thanks to technologies known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), as it’s now possible, in theory, to capture emissions from coal, oil and gas. Hence fossil fuels with CCS are known as abated.

Another important bone of contention at COP will be the use of the phrases ‘phaseout’ vs ‘phasedown’, as different countries and negotiating blocs hold very different views on its use. The summit’s president Sultan Al Jaber, also the boss of host nation UAE’s national oil company, has called on nations to work towards an energy system “free of unabated fossil fuels in the middle of this century” and to agree a “responsible phasedown of unabated fossil fuels”. 

The EU has gone a step further in calling for a “global phaseout of unabated fossil fuels” and is backed by a coalition of 131 global corporations. The 16 members of the High Ambition Coalition have gone further still, calling for a phaseout of all fossil fuel production and use (not just unabated). Meanwhile the US has simply called for a “shift away” from unabated fossil fuels.

Other countries are far more reticent. Saudi Arabia, Russia and China have consistently blocked agreement on unabated fossil fuel phaseout at climate negotiations and are likely to continue doing so at COP28.

The use of ‘unabated’ in climate diplomacy

“Unabated’ first appeared in climate negotiations when the G7 climate and energy ministers, meeting in the UK in May 2021, agreed to end support for unabated coal power. A similar commitment was made by the G20 in October. Later that year, the COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact called for the phasedown of unabated coal power.

In 2022, the G7 agreed to phase out unabated coal power domestically, while the G20 agreed to accelerate its 2021 commitment. Despite a push from India to expand commitments made on coal to all fossil fuels, the COP27 agreement merely repeated commitments made on coal in Glasgow.

In 2023, the G7 agreed to accelerate the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels, but the G20 could only agree a deal to phase down unabated coal power.

CCS limitations

Part of the problem is the lack of any agreed definition of what abated means. Dictionary definitions vary, from a ‘reduction in the amount’ to ‘putting an end to’. The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines unabated as without CCS, whereas the IPCC defines it as “without interventions that substantially reduce the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted throughout the lifecycle”. It defines ‘substantially’ as 90% in the case of CO2 from power plants and 50%-80% in the case of methane leaks.

Without a clear and universally-agreed definition that is consistent with the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, there is a very real danger that efforts to combat climate change will be fatally undermined. 

This is particularly the case given the limitations of CCS technologies. While CCS plants should in theory be able to capture up to 90% of emissions, real world data shows that, in practice, capture rates are far lower. For example, the average capture rates at the Boundary Dam project in the US are 65%, while the Gorgon project in Australia is capturing 45% and the Quest plant in Canada just 39%.

There are other problems, too. Upstream emissions, which come from extraction and production and account for almost 15% of energy-related GHGs, are not included in the IEA definition of unabated fossil fuels. More significantly, CCS does not capture the emissions from the end use of fossil fuels, such as burning petrol and cooking gas. These so-called scope 3 emissions account for 85%-90% of emissions from oil and gas majors.

Science-based definition

There is an urgent need, therefore, for a more rigorous, science-based definition of what abatement actually means.

For a start, it must include high capture rates of at least 90%-95%. Second, it must include all emissions, including upstream and scope 3. Third, it must provide for permanent storage of CO2. Currently, 75% of CCS is used to increase oil production through a process known and enhanced oil recovery, which leads to higher emissions. Even using captured CO2 to make fizzy drinks or plastics is not compatible with climate targets as the CO2 is simply released into the atmosphere again. Finally, there must be rigorous monitoring, reporting and verification of all CCS facilities.

Without this more stringent definition, any agreement to phaseout or phasedown the use of unabated fossil fuels could still be wildly inconsistent with meeting key climate targets.