At least 475 carbon-capture lobbyists attending Cop28

<span>Photograph: Todd Korol/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Todd Korol/Reuters

Cop28 organisers granted attendance to at least 475 lobbyists working on carbon capture and storage (CCS), unproven technologies that climate scientists say will not curtail global heating, the Guardian can reveal.

The figure was calculated by the Centre for Environmental Law (Ciel) and shared exclusively with the Guardian, and is the first attempt to monitor the growing influence of the CCS subset of the fossil fuel industry within the UN climate talks.

CCS, or CCUS (which includes “utilisation”) is being pushed hard at the summit by fossil fuel and other high-pollution industries, as well as by the biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries. CCS backers say the technologies will enable polluters to trap carbon dioxide emissions and bury them under the ground or the seabed, or use the CO2 in the production of fuels or fertilisers.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate scientists agree that phasing out oil, gas and coal is the only path to curtailing global heating to somewhere near 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and that CCUS and other unproven niche technologies are a delaying tactic and a distraction that could, at best, contribute to a very limited extent.

Lili Fuhr, the director of Ciel’s fossil economy programme, said: “The force with which the fossil fuel industry and their allies are coming to Dubai to sell the idea that we can ‘capture’ or ‘manage’ their carbon pollution is a sign of their desperation. CCS is the fossil fuel industry’s lifeline and it is also their latest excuse and delay tactic.

“We must not let an army of carbon capture lobbyists blow a gigantic loophole into the energy package here at Cop28.”

The scale of oil and gas influence is unprecedented at Cop28, which is being run by the president of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, with 2,456 industry-affiliated lobbyists – almost four times higher than the number registered for Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh.

The carbon capture bloc is one of the largest – outnumbering official Indigenous representatives by 50%, as well as several of the most climate-affected countries, including Somalia (366), Niger (135), Guinea-Bissau (43), Tonga (79), Eritrea (7), Liberia (197), and Solomon Islands (56).

Fossil fuel phase-out is the core issue at stake in the negotiations over the global stocktake – the reckoning on progress so far – at Cop28. Major fossil fuel producers, such as the US, Canada, Norway, the EU and Saudi Arabia, are being accused of trying to block an unequivocal agreement on a phase-out by pushing for the stocktake to refer to “abated” fossil fuels.

“Unabated” burning of oil, gas and coal results in CO2 or other greenhouse gases being released directly into the atmosphere. There is no agreement on what “abated” means, but in general it refers to burning fossil fuels combined with the capture and permanent storage of an undefined proportion of the greenhouse gases emitted.

CCUS has been promoted at Cop28 in high-level meetings and dozens of side events. On Tuesday, the “carbon management challenge” was launched by several countries, including the UAE, Australia, Canada, Egypt, the EU, US, Japan and Denmark, announcing government support for CCUS and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies.

But while the technologies may help address emissions in hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as cement and steel, even capturing 1.2 gigatonnes of CO2 – the target initially proposed by the challenge, though not formalised – represents only 3% of the 2022 global emissions.

The Guardian approached the Global CCS Institute and the CCS Association for comment.

For years, CCUS projects have over-promised and under-delivered. Chevron’s Gorgon gas facility in Western Australia is the site of the world’s largest industrial CCUS project, which, during its first five years, missed its carbon capture targets by about 50%. Earlier this year the Guardian reported that emissions at the gas facility have risen by 50%.

Critics say CCUS and other abatement technologies would fail to tackle the 5 million annual deaths linked to air pollution caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels.

Internal industry documents released by the US House oversight committee’s investigation into climate disinformation in 2021 suggest that oil executives are aware of CCUS’s limitations – and its potential as a lifeline for fossil fuels.

Earlier this year, the chief executive of the US oil company Occidental, Vicki Hollub, who is registered as a Cop28 delegate, told an industry conference that direct air capture “gives our industry a licence to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed”. Occidental said the CO2 captured in Texas would be stored underground and used as a sort of carbon credit system for other companies to buy. It touts itself as an example of “net zero oil”, whereby removed CO2 is injected into rock formations to dislodge gas and oil for further extraction.

Rachel Cleetus, the climate and energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “Fossil fuel and narrow political interests are choosing to obfuscate and water down the text being negotiated for the final Cop28 agreement, despite the clarity science brings to the necessity of a phase-out.

“The reality is that CCS/CCUS cannot contribute meaningfully to emission reductions in this critical decade … The core, unavoidable task remains making deep, direct cuts in fossil fuel use. There are no escape hatches.”

The 475 CCS lobbyists were identified from the UN’s provisional list of about 84,000 participants at Cop28, and include representatives of companies that have partnered in carbon capture and utilisation or storage projects, according to an International Energy Agency database, as well as other companies and organisations that have a public record of advocating for these technologies.

Blessed Chidhoni, from the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, and who lost family members during floods in Zimbabwe, said: “Thousands of fossil fuel lobbyists are roaming these halls alongside their peers, advancing dangerous distractions like carbon capture and storage, trying to block a fast, fair, forever fossil fuel phase-out – while communities enduring the greatest impacts from the climate crisis are having our voices silenced and our lives treated as a worthy sacrifice for profit.”