How fossil fuel lobbyists are skewing climate talks towards false solutions

Carbon capture will be a hot topic at this year’s COP28. Oil and gas companies say it’s a solution to the climate crisis - reducing emissions by removing carbon from the air, during industrial processes or when producing electricity.

The problem is, it doesn’t work at scale. Over 80% of projects that have been proposed globally have flopped, and currently carbon capture technologies are mainly used to extract more oil.

Ultimately, carbon capture is much more likely to safeguard the future of the fossil fuel industry than it is to safeguard humanity. It’s being used as a get-out-of-jail-free card to drill for more fossil fuels and to divert attention from scaling real solutions to climate change, like wind and solar power.

We don’t have time for this bad science. The climate talks present a critical opportunity for world leaders to commit to urgently phasing out the fossil fuels behind nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s of course really important that businesses make efforts to decarbonise, but the solutions proposed need to work. And right now, fossil fuel companies are much better at capturing climate talks than carbon.

This is how they do it.

Hiding behind carbon capture “institutes”

Fossil fuel companies are using the carbon capture industry to infiltrate international climate talks and policy. Their approach isn’t subtle, but it is effective.

For example, the world’s five largest integrated private sector oil and gas companies by revenue - Shell, BP, TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil and Chevron - as well as the UAE’s state-owned oil company ADNOC, are members of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. Three of its six Directors either currently work or used to work for Shell or BP. The Institute took part in one of the three “Technical Dialogues” which inform the UN’s process to assess progress on delivering the Paris Agreement ahead of COP28.

Then we have the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA), counting BP, Shell and TotalEnergies among its members, and registered as a business NGO for COP28. In preparation for the climate summit, its Westminster conference (sponsored by oil companies) promised “an excellent opportunity for UK and EU Governments, industry and wider stakeholders to drive progress on CCUS, demonstrating the contribution that CCUS can make to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement ahead of COP28.”

The COP host is also pushing carbon capture to justify the expansion of fossil fuel production.

“I just don’t see most countries, and certainly not the vulnerable countries, being willing to support the Cop president on this [fossil fuel energy mix using CCS] because it is a direct threat to their survival.” - Christiana Figueres, the UN’s ex-climate chief

The carbon capture lobby has influenced international climate negotiations for some time. Carbon capture industry leaders were invited to present to international policy makers before this year’s interim talks in Bonn. At COP27, the UAE and other oil and gas-producing nations showcased their carbon capture plans inside the conference centre.

This strategy is working – carbon capture features heavily in several work streams at climate negotiations and the technology is part of countries’ emission reduction plans.

All of this energy and determination would be very welcome, if the tools being promoted worked to slow climate change. But they don’t – so what purpose is it serving?

Fossil fuel companies are leveraging climate talks to strike carbon capture deals 

Some oil and gas companies are busily buying up or investing in carbon capture start-ups to extend the lifespan of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, they publicise carbon capture as their commitment to low carbon solutions, but are not dramatically reducing fossil fuel production. The veneer of legitimacy that COP offers is helping.

One example is Occidental Petroleum’s recent purchase of Carbon Engineering Ltd for $1.1 billion. Also known as Oxy, the company’s CEO Vicki Hollub and 11 colleagues registered on the United Arab Emirates’ delegation at COP27. In March, Hollub framed carbon capture as a lifeline for the oil and gas industries, stating that direct air capture “is going to be the technology that helps to preserve our industry” and gives it “a licence to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed”, according to Climate Home News.

This August, Oxy and the UAE’s state oil company ADNOC announced a new partnership to explore carbon capture and storage projects. In 2021, BP, ADNOC and Masdar (UAE’s renewable energy company) also partnered to deliver “clean energy solutions” including exploring carbon capture in the UAE.

ExxonMobil has used international climate negotiations to strike a carbon capture and storage agreement. In 2022, the company announced a partnership with Indonesia's energy company, Pertamina, to advance cooperation in carbon capture and storage, building on an agreement the companies signed at the previous COP26.

Exxon promotes carbon capture as part of its “low carbon solutions” and invests far more here than in truly renewable technologies. It committed to spend $2.8 billion (approximately 5% of its profits in 2022) each year until 2027 on low carbon solutions. In July 2023, Exxon purchased a CO2 pipeline operator for $4.9 billion, leaving little funds for investment in technologies that are actually renewable.

Dangerous policy overreliance on carbon capture and storage

Many companies and countries are making completely unrealistic bets on this technology to reach net zero. In the future, if the technology continues to fail - as around 80% of proposed projects globally have - the emissions it was meant to capture will instead leave the world locked into climate collapse.

Even some already unrealistic carbon capture plans wouldn’t be enough. For example, the UAE’s ADNOC is aiming to reach 5 million tonnes of annual carbon storage by 2030. Even in the unlikely event of success, that would still fall almost 100 times short of the country’s projected emissions in 2030.

The technology is absorbing huge investments that could be better put elsewhere, while yielding minimal carbon benefits. In some cases, it’s making emissions worse, not better.

“If the Trojans had looked in the horse’s mouth, they might have won that war.”

Nonetheless, stealthy lobbying has seen this growing industry infiltrate climate negotiations.

This calculated promotion of bad science in the name of profit undermines the very heart of the Paris Agreement and endangers those most at risk of climate impacts.

It makes absolutely no sense to bet the house on the longest of long shots, to further protect the industry which has done most to cause the climate crisis. Fossil fuel lobbyists have no place within the halls of climate policy.

COP Climate Summit