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COP22 – Multinational companies and carbon storage: a sustainable solution ?

· Environnement

By Aymeric Faure, Local delegate of the Institut Open Diplomacy in London, Student in Master of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science - LSE.

Action to limit global warming, action to limit CO2 emissions, action to talk about, negotiate, sign and ratify international treaties, action is the goal of COP22 following the promising COP21. What about the tangible issues discussed in the negotiation rooms? Many possible solutions discussed by negotiators and heads of states are presented and not enough relayed by the media. For instance, the Carbon Capture and Storage technology – CCS – is less well-known than the market-based solutions for CO2 emissions. However, this technology and its emergence as a solution adopted by the international community reveal international political underlying mechanisms. The business sector is an increasingly powerful actor and its proposed solutions must be analysed to qualify the thinking short cut considering that pro-business solutions represent a systematic dead-end for the planet. On the contrary their inclusive implication is determinant for succeeding in fighting against climate change.

The Carbon Capture and Storage technology, a proven technology

The CCS technology has been extensively discussed at COP21 in December 2015 in Paris. This technology has a double goal. First, to capture CO2 and other gases emitted from electricity, steel, oil, chemistry and cement industries; second, to compress those gases at high pressure and to inject them into the earth's subsurface in impermeable geological cavities. Juho Lipponen, Head of Unit at the International Energy Agency – IEA considers this technology as inevitable to meet the 2°C limitation. For the moment the temperature trends are clearly above the 1,5/2°C goal. It is then crucial to take decisions now. The European Commission likewise underlined in 2014 that the “CCS could be the only possible solution to reduce direct emissions of industrial operations in the massive proportions required in the long term1 and this view is shared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC, the international body for assessing the science related to climate change.

The “CCS could be the only possible solution to reduce direct emissions of industrial operations in the massive proportions required in the long term”.

The stated acknowledgement and goals of the IAE are clear: the world’s energy mix is based mainly on fossil fuel energies. Coal, oil and gas accounted for more than 80% of the energy demand in 2013, for approximately 2/3 in 20152. This rate is expected to decline to 40% in 20503. The trend goes the good way, but the demand will in consequence remain quite substantial, and the CCS technology could play its full role. In 2015, 15 large-scale facilities captured and stored 27 millions of tons of CO2. 9 new projects are being developed for implementation by the end of 2018 in the United States, Canada, Australia and United Arab Emirates for a total storage capacity of 13,1Mt per anuum4. The IAE estimates that in 2050, 6 billions of tons of CO2 will yearly be captured and stored, approximately the equivalent of three times yearly actual India’s energy sector emissions, and that the CCS technology will contribute 13% to global cumulative C02 reductions. All of this implies that investments and research and development in this technology are going on, and are included as a key part in the carbon regime.

Interests, power and influence of Multinational Companies in the Carbon Capture and Storage technology

This technology was adopted as an alternative, not as a primary objective. The neo-pluralist approach in international political economy assumes that businesses play a crucial role in international environmental politics. In the CCS case, oil and gas companies such as BP, Shell, ExxonMobil or Statoil were decisive actors. Since the early nineties, these Multinational Companies (MNCs) have launched several research and development projects to implement a large scale CO2 storage technology5. The injection of under-pressure CO2 in oil wells in their tertiary phase of exploitation – a phase during which carbon is injected in remaining oil to maintain pressure – enhances the hydrocarbons recovery rates and emerges therefore as a win-win solution to the extent that through the same operation, they reduce their carbon emissions and improve their future business possibilities6. However, by the eve of the Kyoto COP3 Conference in December 1997, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission limitation issue concretely surfaced. In response to this, MNCs organised themselves in solid coalitions such as the Global Climate Coalition, GCC, in the United States. They aimed to avoid by hook or by crook binding international regulations like a carbon tax or GHG emissions limitations, which would have had too significant repercussion on their fundamental economic interests. They rolled out a powerful lobbying that have proved to be efficient at both national and international stage. They indeed managed to break the international consensus on the necessity to adopt international environmental binding regulations.

Multinational Companies used their strong power to influence the climate negotiations.

This blockage did not last. Just after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the anti-regulation coalition started to collapse. Several dissident companies decided to change their position from opposition to support of international regulations. For instance, BP quitted the GCC and joined other companies of Automotive and Oil & Gas industries such as Chrysler, Ford, Shell, Texaco and several environmental business-tolerant NGOs to build pro-regulation coalitions like the US Climate Action Partnership – USCAP.

The primary objective of those coalitions, rather than remaining in opposition outside the negotiation rooms, is to use their strong power in liberal capitalist western countries to weight in international negotiations and to take an inclusive part in the carbon environmental regime building. Their power is indeed polymorphous7. First, they have a structural advantageous position in our societies highly dependant on energy supply. They also have a financial power that permits them to implement costly technologies and efficient lobbying. Their links with domestic governmental departments, ministries or agencies as well as their presence in the international arena through notably the International Chamber of Commerce – ICC provides them a strong relational and international power. They have also an undeniable technological power to the extent that they implement, and possess the innovation capacity to develop key technologies8. Finally, they are firmly organised which provides them weight in international bargaining, in the respect that they are able to speak with one coherent voice.

The exercise of this power have a catalysis effect on carbon negotiations. The scission between anti- and pro-regulation triggered the opening of new perspectives for the GHG emissions regime building. The CCS solution is today clearly recognized as a major solution for gas emission reduction. Through their non-blocking behaviour, MNCs used their strong power to influence the negotiations towards closer to their interests solutions. This regime-building mechanism raises a lot of issues, especially on the role of businesses on international governance and also on the nature of the found solutions.

Adoption of the Paris Agreement, December 2015.

Is the Carbon Capture and Storage technology solution sustainable?

One of the main critique refers to the sustainability of this technological solution as a means in the fight against climate change. Even if gases are deeply buried, emissions are still real and the huge amount of money dedicated in investments in research and development and in the implementation of the CCS technology – sometimes considered itself as a blocking element – could be better invested in the development of greener energies or in the reduction of energy demand. Technology improvements in energy efficiency and investments in general energy renovation could permit to tangibly reduce carbon emissions, not just displace carbon under the ground, in a situation where the long term geological, hydrological, physical or even chemical consequences are still uncertain. In simple words, we can argue that this is a short-term solution which by itself do not permit to drastically change the global energy mix. Then, it is an expensive technology. For instance, the construction and exploitation costs of a coal-fired power plan could increase by 40% to 80% if they develop and implement this method9.

The long term geological, hydrological, physical or even chemical consequences of the CCS technology are still uncertain.

The underlying issue of this is the redefinition of powers in the environmental regime building. It highlights the role of businesses, at least equally important if not more important than the one of other actors. In addition to that, the position of states is hard to define. Scholars in the discipline have divergent views of the question. Some consider the states as still the decisive actor to the extent that they are the ones which sign international treaties. They consider that the lobbied actor is more powerful than the lobbyist, because the first one keeps the choice to echo or not the lobbyists' wills and still have the final decision power. Other scholars argue that states are to some degree prisoners of their own position: they have to create GDP growth conditions and a business-friendly national context in the economic globalisation, and hence are compelled to carefully listen to businesses voices.

The major issue is the definition of powers in the environmental regime building.

The Carbon Capture and Storage technology case is therefore insightful. Businesses are essential actors in the environmental regime-building. The shift in their position indicates that they find a efficient solution to defend their interest in a subtler way than a direct opposition. The dawn of the Marrakech COP22 from the 7th to 18th November 2016 is a convenient moment to underline that role and to understand the mechanism through which businesses have made a name for themselves in the environmental regime building. The question is now whether this business-influenced regime building is sustainable and not just unsufficient bypasses to avoid the deterrent carbon tax or the compelling emission limitation, or whether the catalysis effect of their ingress in the international negotiations is determinant for the regime building that could never have existed without.

2 Key world energy statistics, International Energy Agency, 2016.

3 OECD/IAE, Carbon Capture and Storage: The solution for deep emissions reductions, 2015, https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/carbon-capture-and-storagethe-solution-for-deep-emissions-reductions.html. .

5 TJERNSHAUGEN, A, 2012, “Technological Power as a Strategic Dilemma: CO2 Capture and Storage in the International Oil and Gas Industry”, Global Environmental Politics, MIT, 12:1, February 2012.

6 Storing CO2 through enhanced Oil Recovery, International Energy Agency, 2016.

7 NEWELL, P, PATERSON, M, 1998, “A Climate for Business: Global Warming, the State and Capital”, Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter, 1998), pp. 679-703.

8 FALKNER, R, “Chapter 25: Business power, business conflict: a neo-pluralist perspective on international environmental politics”, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, Falkner R and Dauvergne P., 2012,

Picture caption: Vattenfall Carbon capture and storage facility in Scwarze pumpe, German.

Les opinions et interprétations exprimées dans les publications engagent la seule responsabilité de leurs auteurs, dans le respect de l'article 3 des statuts de l'Institut Open Diplomacy et de sa charte des valeurs.

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