Reliance on carbon capture and carbon removal technology is a dangerous trap

Four years ago, Canada committed to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. Details of Canada’s net-zero by 2050 “pledge” were first set out in a report published by the Canada Energy Regulator, Canada’s Energy Future 2020. The document informed Canadians that “reaching net-zero emissions does not necessarily require eliminating all emissions by 2050. It promises that, by 2050, the ongoing level of Canada’s annual emissions (referred to as Canada’s “remaining emissions”) will be offset (“balanced”) by technologies that governments and oil and gas producers claim will have the capability to capture our remaining emissions or remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.

In a recent report December 7, 2023, the Liberal Government assured Canadians that “virtually all high-income countries achieve net-zero by 2050 and other large emitters like China and India reach net-zero by 2060 and 2070 respectively, as they have committed.”

Canada is the world’s 4th largest oil producer. Our oil production is still increasing. About 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity consist of CO2released by the combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal as fuel. Our government’s declared policy is that there will not be any reductions in our production levels “that are not driven by declines in global demand”. The future level of oil production in Canada will be decided by the global market and by oil producers and their shareholders. The U.S and other major oil suppliers are also increasing their oil production. A recent New York Times article extolls the technological prowess of a giant deep-water oil platform called Appomatox located 80 miles southeast of Louisiana:

Political and corporate leaders have pledged to reduce planet-warming emissions to net-zero by 2050. But oil companies like Shell are betting that the world will need oil and gas for decades to come. To serve that demand, they are expanding offshore oil and gas drilling into deeper and deeper waters, especially here in the Gulf of Mexico.   

New York Times, Business, May 10, 2024 (emphasis added)

Reports of this kind, quoting government ministers and CEOs about the positive future of the oil industry, are common. They invariably include statements that we will need more oil “for decades to come” and assurances that we have pledged to meet “net zero by 2050”. The Globe and Mail Report on Business recently celebrated the completion of the expanded TMX Pipeline to the Port of Vancouver. It mentions Canada’s “push towards a net-zero economy”. It comments on the outlook for global oil demand: 

The International Energy Agency predicts that global demand will peak as early as 2030 at more than 103 million barrels a day, then gradually ease off as the energy transition gathers momentum in the two decades after.

The Globe and Mail, April 27, 2024

But this ‘prediction’ cited by The Globe and Mail refers to a well-known projection of future oil production prepared by the International Energy Agency (IEA), referred to as the “Stated Policies Scenario” (STEPS). A close look at the IEA’s STEPS Scenario reveals that it projects the future path of oil demand over the next 30 years based on existing energy policies. It assumes there will be no significant transition away from reliance on oil and gas before 2050. Under the STEPS Scenario, global oil production will “peak” at 103 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2030 and then continue at levels above 100 million bpd through to 2050. It is aligned with warming of 2°C by 2050 and at least 2.4°C by 2100. The Globe and Mail article is silent about the warming increase.

The IEA has also published an alternative scenario called the “Net-Zero by 2050 Scenario” aligned with limiting future warming to 1.5°C. It concludes that to meet that goal, a 23% reduction of global oil production is required by 2030, down to 77 million bpd, and a 50% reduction to 44 million bpd must be achieved by 2040. The Globe omits any mention of this 1.5°C-aligned scenario.

An urgent warning was given on November 8, 2023, when the UN Environmental Programme and the Stockholm Environmental Institute released their bi-annual Production Gap Report 2023. The graph below, reproduced from the new report, shows the magnitude of global fossil fuel emissions based on current government plans and projections (top red line). The path that the world’s 20 major producer countries (including Canada) are presently planning to follow will, by 2030, bring annual emissions from reliance on fossil fuels to about 44 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2eq,* well above even the levels shown in the IEA’s STEPS Scenario.

Graph showing global fossil fuel production and emissions, with a red line at the top showing government plans and projections, with blue and green areas for the 2C and 1.5C consistent paths much lower.

A 1.5°C-consistent scenario, depicted by the lowest line on the graph, shows that overall emissions from global oil, natural gas, and coal combustion, which reached an annual level of 37 GtCO2 in 2022, must decline to about 24 GtCO2 by 2030 and down to 13 GtCO2 by 2035 (those are the reduced levels required to align with the IEA’s Net-Zero by 2050 Scenario). To the extent emissions from fossil fuel burning exceed those much lower annual levels and are released into the atmosphere, they will directly contribute to driving warming far above 1.5°C.

We now have approximately seven more years before we exceed the atmospheric carbon concentration level consistent with our ability to limit the warming increase to 1.5°C.  After about 2030, all additional CO2 emissions generated by the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels will be driving warming steadily above 1.5°C.

The predicament we face is that if the world continues to produce and consume high levels of oil, natural gas and coal at the pace indicated on the top line of the graph above, or even on the slightly more limited levels shown in the IEA’s STEPS Scenario, emissions from fossil fuel burning will remain well above 30 GtCO2 every year for another 26 years, through to 2050. It is the rising cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that is heating the earth.  To halt the escalating heating of the earth’s surface, we would need to “capture” or remove from the atmosphere equivalent amounts, about 30 GtCO2every year, for many decades.

The assessment of knowledgeable experts is that, on a global scale, total Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) capacity (which has the capability to captures the CO2 at industrial sites before it is released into the atmosphere) could scale up to about 1 GtCO2 of annual capture by 2030, up to 3.7 GtCO2 by 2040, and up to a maximum capacity of about 6 GtCO2 annually by 2050.

Given the limited future capacity of CCS technology, the overwhelming majority of annual CO2 generated by the combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal during the next two decades (at least 25 to 30 GtCO2 every year) will continue to be released directly into the atmosphere. Any remaining chance to halt the ongoing temperature increase, if it could possibly be done, would then depend entirely on the development of carbon dioxide removal technologies, principally Bioenergy combined CCS (BECCS) and direct air capture (DACCS), which would need to have the capability to eventually remove those huge volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere. The IEA has calculated that if oil and natural gas consumption continue to follow the path shown in its STEPS Scenario, by 2050 carbon capture capacity would need to reach 32 GtCO2 per year, including 23 GtCO2 of direct air capture capacity, levels the IEA describes as “inconceivable”.  

The assessment of the recent expert studies is that carbon dioxide removal capacity, in terms of the upper bound of what is feasible by 2050, is in the range of 1.7 GtCO2 to 3.0 GtCO2 per year. Some estimates give up to 5 GtCO2 per year.

In political and public discussion easy talk of “net-zero by 2050” has moved the problem deep into the future.  The day of reckoning is 26 years away. It is then that our children and grandchildren will be called upon to count the remaining emissions.

The story that weaves together “net-zero” pledges, high levels of oil and gas production for two more decades, and the technological miracles of carbon capture and carbon removal is a fiction. It has no foundation in the available evidence.

* The Production Gap data includes both CO2 emissions released when these products are burned as fuel and, in addition, other GHG emissions including methane released during the upstream oil and gas production process. The emissions data in this report is given as CO2eq, indicating that methane and other GHGs are included in the 44 GtCO2eq figure. The atmospheric warming effect of the methane and other gases is converted into an “equivalent” amount of CO2.