The most straightforward way to avoid climate change is to stop treating the atmosphere as a free waste dump for carbon dioxide.
Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) solves that problem — by storing carbon dioxide permanently underground, or turning it into solid minerals or useful products.
Important announcements on this critical technology were made at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi last week.
Adnoc has begun work on the world’s first venture of capturing carbon dioxide in an underground saline reservoir composed of carbonates — rocks such as limestones — rather than the sandstones used elsewhere.
It announced a pilot project to inject carbon dioxide into rocks found in Fujairah (also widespread in neighbouring Oman), bearing the mineral olivine, which reacts with the gas to form solid minerals, guaranteeing permanent storage.
Four non-profit groups — the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, Clean Air Task Force, Clean Energy Ministerial and King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre — co-hosted an in-depth expert discussion on CCUS at the summit that featured, among others, experts from Emirates Steel, the energy ministries of the UAE and Norway, Adnoc and Saudi Aramco, alongside myself.
We know now that CCUS works, is safe, economically competitive with other low-carbon options, essential to decarbonise certain industries, and has a large role in nearly all credible climate plans.
North America and Europe are now finally developing it further. The key question the workshop tackled was: how do we accelerate its deployment in the Mena region?
The three main CCUS projects in the Middle East — in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE — account for about 10 per cent of the 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide captured globally. By 2030, Qatar targets seven million tonnes per year captured and the UAE five million tonnes; Saudi Arabia aims to reach 44 million tonnes by 2035.
Today’s capture is only about a thousandth of total emissions. The International Energy Agency’s net-zero scenario requires 1.6 billion tonnes of worldwide capture annually by 2030. Rystad Energy, a consultancy, says we are on track to operate about 550 million tonnes by the end of the decade. By that estimate, the Middle East would just about maintain its 10 per cent share.
But this region needs to do more. As a centre of the hydrocarbon industry, it is essential for its energy industry to be as low-carbon as possible to maintain its competitive position. The GCC alone accounts for more than a tenth of world gas production and almost a quarter of world oil (although no coal). While the region is not a large emitter in absolute terms, per capita carbon dioxide is high.
Fortunately, the Middle East has among the best conditions in the world for CCUS: concentrations of heavily-emitting industry in close proximity to giant, well-understood subsurface reservoirs, usually in shallow waters offshore or in sparsely-populated deserts.
The long history of the oil business here, and people’s familiarity with it, gives public acceptance and a base of skills and assets. Only the US’s Gulf of Mexico coast rivals this combination.
The GCC’s blue hydrogen projects alone — made from natural gas with CCUS — imply more than 26 million tonnes of capture. Intentions to decarbonise the aluminium and steel industries and the national oil and petrochemical sector’s own operations add to this.
Zero-emission gas-fired electricity will also be important to complement solar and, in the UAE, nuclear generation.
Three things are essential for CCUS to realise its full potential in the Mena region.
First is to think much bigger. Projects of around one million tonnes per year of capture each are an important starting point. But we would need to build one of these every day worldwide from now to 2050 to meet climate goals.
Scaling up to combined projects of 10 to 50 million tonnes would allow CCUS to have a true impact on climate ambitions, ending the nit-picking of doubters who seize every opportunity to write it off.
Second is to create carbon capture hubs, with multiple industries feeding into common carbon dioxide transport and storage systems. Industries such as petrochemicals, cement or steel know little of subsurface geology: they need to be able to capture their emissions and know there is a capable operator who will deal with them, for a suitable fee. That is the same role as a sewage treatment or waste management company.
Smaller emitters, such as factories, who cannot carry through a viable project on their own, can make use of the shared infrastructure.
These hubs would handle both carbon dioxide and hydrogen, potentially combining the two to form useful chemicals, and making use of common facilities. They could also import carbon dioxide from countries unable to store it themselves, such as South Korea and Japan.
The third is to introduce suitable incentives. Europe has a carbon price, currently about €83 ($90) per tonne, and the US has a generous tax credit of $85 per tonne.
An emitter in the Mena region might hope to use captured carbon dioxide productively, to achieve a “green” premium for its products, or to avoid the EU’s impending tariff on high-carbon imports.
But there is otherwise no domestic penalty for high emitters or compensation for businesses that install CCUS.
International agreements to allow cross-border funding of CCUS are one way forward, and could be advanced at the Cop28 climate talks in Dubai in November.
If Mena countries are to progress on their ambitious net-zero goals, they need to make carbon capture economically viable.
Robin M. Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis