What does “unabated” fossil fuels mean?

The word “unabated” qualifies commitments to phase out fossil fuels. But setting a clear definition is the subject of fierce debates.

Chevron's Gorgon gas project in Australia has one of the largest carbon capture and storage plants in the world. Photo: Chevron Australia


One word dominates much of current climate discussions and will most likely take centre stage at the Cop28 summit: unabated.

From G7 statements to IPCC reports, mentions of the need to phase out the use of fossil fuels frequently come accompanied by this qualifier.

But what does it actually mean? The answer is not straightforward and agreeing on a shared understanding will be one of the defining battles of future climate commitments.

Katrine Petersen, a senior policy advisor at E3G, says there is currently no international definition of what constitutes carbon dioxide (CO2) abatement.

Commitments without clarity

Naturally, unabated is the opposite of abated, which means reducing the intensity of something.

When it comes to the use of coal, oil and gas for power generation, this refers to the attempts to bring the release of polluting substances down to an acceptable level.

What this level is and how to get there is hotly debated.

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Despite the current lack of clarity, the word ‘unabated’ features prominently in climate commitments.

The call to speed up efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power was the big breakthrough at Cop26. Now that the attention has shifted also to oil and gas, the emphasis on ‘unabated’ remains the common denominator.

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At April’s G7 summit leaders mentioned the word seven times in their final statement. Most prominently in a commitment to accelerate the phase-out of unabated fossil fuels with the goal to achieve net zero in the power sector by 2050.

But nowhere do these governments provide a clear explanation of what they mean.

IPCC definition

The closest we can get to an universally-accepted definition comes in a footnote to the IPCC synthesis report. Written by scientists and approved by governments, the document summarises the latest scientific knowledge on climate change.

The report says the abatement of fossil fuel production and use comes through interventions that substantially reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emitted throughout their life cycle. As an example – it says in a footnote – this could involve capturing 90% or more carbon dioxide from power plants.

Here, the IPCC refers to the technology most people associate with the concept of abatement: carbon capture and storage (CCS). The process aims to trap CO2 emissions generated by a power plant at source and store them deep underground.

Carbon capture divisions

CCS is at the centre of an increasingly deeply-divided debate.

Oil and gas-producing countries and the industry argue that the technology will be necessary to extract climate-damaging gases while the world keeps burning fossil fuels.

The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol thinks CCS is “critical for ensuring our transitions to clean energy are secure and sustainable”.

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Another big proponent of the technology is UAE’s Cop28 boss Sultan Al-Jaber. He has called for a phase-out of “fossil fuel emissions”, saying that oil and gas will continue to play a role in the foreseeable future.

His words have angered many climate politics watchers. Former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres recently argued CCS is not the solution. “We do not have carbon capture commercially available and viable over the next five to seven years,” she said on her podcast recently.

‘Gigantic loophole’

Campaigners claim CCS has already failed and describe it as the “first line of defense” for a fossil fuel economy that does not want to change.

Lili Fuhr, from the Center for International Environmental Law, told Climate Home its association with CCS means the inclusion of unabated in pledges is a “gigantic loophole” for the fossil fuel industry.

The Kemper coal power plant failed to deliver on its promise to use CCS to capture emissions. Photo: XTUV0010

She also argued capture rates of existing plants are much lowers than what the industry advertises.

The IEA says power plants with CCS in operation are designed to capture around 90% of emissions. This rate would be in line with the definition used by the IPCC.

But an analysis by a think tank of 13 flagship CCS projects worldwide found they have either underperformed or failed entirely.

Need for high standards

E3G’s Petersen thinks policymakers and regulators have a vital role in defining and implementing appropriate abatement standards, including CCS capture rates.

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“It’s important that high standards for these emissions reduction requirements are set,” says Petersen. “Fossil fuel power plant operators would then either have to meet this standard or shut down the plant.”

Some countries, however, are heading in the opposite direction and pushing for a wider interpretation of abatement as possible.

Watering down

Japan, for example, has used its G7 presidency to promote its controversial strategy to cut emissions from coal power plants by co-firing ammonia.

Analysts say this is costly and won’t make a significant dent in CO2 emissions.

“Japan is claiming that any reduction of emissions counts as abatement,” says Petersen. “That is a ludicrously low level of emissions reduction and should not be considered adequate abatement for a fossil fuel power plant.”

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