One phrase that has crept into the climate lingo is ‘abated’ (or, conversely, ‘unabated’) fossil fuels use. There are calls for ‘phasing out’ or ‘phasing down’ of unabated fossil fuels use and much controversy revolves around the idea of abatement. The final text of the COP28 climate talks, currently underway in Dubai, is expected to focus heavily on unabated fossil fuels. 

But what are abated or unabated fossil fuels? 

‘Abated fossil fuels use’ refers to the burning of fossil fuels while simultaneously picking up and neutralising the carbon dioxide emissions, either by using them or securely storing the gas underground—forever. ‘Unabated’ refers to burning fossil fuels and letting the emissions to be released into the atmosphere. 

Developed countries want coal to be phased out. In the concluding moments of the Glasgow Conference of 2021 (COP26), India—much to the chagrin of developed countries—forced the COP Presidency (UK) to change the language from “phase out” to “phase down” unabated coal. So, phasing down has come to be accepted as the standard language, but much debate is around whether the phase down should apply only to coal (as the developed countries want) or to all fossil fuels, including oil and gas (which India and other developing countries favour). 

Secondly, the definition of ‘abatement’ itself is a key issue. What level of carbon capture should qualify as ‘abated’ use? If a thermal power plant captures and sequesters, say, 10 per cent of the carbon dioxide it emits, would it still be considered “unabated coal” burning? 

So, the present situation is that while ‘phase down’ has been accepted with mumbles and moans, many discussions are around whether only coal should be phased down or all fossil fuels, and the definition of abatement. 

What is abatement? 

But pushing aside all of this are questions arising over the very concept of abatement—many shrill voices are saying that ‘carbon capture and sequestration’ itself is hardly anything. Among the many voices are those of two well-known climate experts—Laurence Tubiana and Emmanuel Guérin. Tubiana is the CEO of the European Climate Foundation and was France’s climate change ambassador and special representative for COP21, which resulted in the Paris Agreement. Guerin is the executive director for global policies at the European Climate Foundation (ECF). 

Writing in, a respected online publication dedicated to climate change, Tubiana and Guerin tell readers, “Don’t be fooled: CCS is no solution to oil and gas emissions.” 

CCS, at best, might be helpful “at the margins”, but “cannot possibly deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the scale needed to avert climate disaster,” they say, adding that CCS might deliver “less than a tenth” of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions over 2023-2050 period. 

Climate activists fear that CCS might be used by fossil fuel companies as a smokescreen to continue producing and selling fossil fuels. Dr Al Khourdajie, a research fellow at Imperial College London, notes that the vague definition of “abated” fossil fuel gives a “false, if not dangerous, sense of security” that could lead to inadequate policy measures and investment decisions.” 

Experts, such as those at Carbon Brief, note that “CCS barely exists and relying on a major scale-up is considered “risky”. 

CCS can be useful only if almost all the emissions are captured and sequestered. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), an UN-mandated international body of scientists formed to assist policymakers by generating scientific data on climate change, has said that “even if realized at its full announced potential, CCS will only account for about 2.4 per cent of the world’s carbon mitigation by 2030.” 

IPCC has said that ‘unabated’ fossil fuels use can be green-flagged only if the CCS plants capture 90 per cent or more of CO2 emissions. The clinching argument against CCS is that today there is no established technology that can capture 90 per cent of emissions. A recent study by the think-tank, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reviewed the capacity and performance of 13 flagship projects and found that 10 of the 13 failed or underperformed against their designed capacities, mostly by large margins.