Unabated coal”: what does it mean and why is this term used?

 Unabated coal”: what does it mean and why is this term used?

The opening speech by the COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, a few days ago, captivated us with its content, sparking immense curiosity. We revisited and listened to the speech, scrutinizing references to the use and extraction of fossil fuels. Al Jaber, speaking about the future, specifically mentions a “transition away from unabated coal,” but what does this imply? Let’s explore this together.

By Sofia Farina

Translated by Daniele Savietto

In Al Jaber’s speech, written in size 11 font across more than two pages, there are only a couple of mentions of fossil fuels. Initially, he advocates for collaboration with the fossil fuel industry:

“I am aware of the strong views on including discussions about fossil fuels and renewable energies in the negotiation texts. We have the opportunity to do something extraordinary. I urge everyone to collaborate, to be flexible, find common ground, propose solutions, and reach consensus. And we must always keep our focus on the 1.5°C target, as that is my primary focus.”

In another brief reference to the future, he says:

“Today, countries that represent over 85% of the global economy are backing the COP28 goal to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. We are nearing a critical mass in our aim to double energy efficiency by 2030. This is how we will transition away from unabated coal.”

The Term ‘Unabated’

I kept the final phrase in English to emphasize the challenging-to-translate word: unabated. Essentially, this means we aim to move away from using coal that has not seen a reduction in emissions. However, let’s focus for a moment on ‘unabated.’ This term, challenging to translate and lacking a universal definition, is explained by Romain Ioualalen from Oil Change International as such: “The sole official reference defining fossil fuels as unabated is found in a footnote in this year’s IPCC synthesis report.” Without a clear, universal definition, interpretations of the term can vary.

Generally, ‘abatement’ technologies refer to methods that reduce CO2 emissions from industrial processes, like carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

Promoting abatement technologies is a route often taken by the oil and gas industry, aiming to legitimize and widely spread technologies like CCS as an alternative to completely eliminating fossil fuels, explains Ioualalen.

CCS Technologies

CCS technologies are designed to capture CO2 emissions from power plants, factories, and other industrial processes before they enter the atmosphere. The captured CO2 is then transported for storage, usually in geological formations like depleted oil and gas fields, salt formations, or basalt. It can also be repurposed, often re-injected underground to enhance extraction from depleted reserves.

At first glance, CCS might seem like a viable solution to climate change. However, its practical impact has been minimal. Over fifty years, since its first inception in the 1970s, CCS technology has captured just 0.001% of global emissions. Interestingly, 70% of this captured CO2 is used to extract more fossil fuels, increasing production (Source: David Suzuki Foundation).

In practical terms, CCS impacts emissions from extraction processes, not the emissions from the final use of oil and gas. Moreover, CCS technologies are not easily scalable and are known for being energy-intensive and costly, up to 10 times more expensive than reducing emissions through renewable sources.

In summary, while CCS strategies might contribute to long-term emission reduction, they are far from being a comprehensive solution to what the planet currently needs: a significant reduction in emissions and a drastic cut in the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

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