These figures both represent a single, 1.5oC-compliant, trajectory. The first is in terms of actual emissions, the second in terms of the proportions of CO2 emitted. Note that net emissions of CO2 (blue area) are always less than or equal to total CO2 produced, as the sequestered CO2 (grey area) is always greater than or equal to zero.

Carbon Takeback places the responsibility for safe storage of CO2 onto companies that extract or import fossil fuels.

Here’s how:

The Challenge

  • The Paris Agreement sets out a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.
  • Global temperatures in 2020 have already passed 1.1°C and are increasing at over 0.2°C per decade, driven predominantly by CO2 emissions, over 85% generated by fossil fuels and industry.
  • We have only a few decades to reduce global CO2 emissions to net zero if we are to meet the more ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement.
  • We cannot ban developing countries from using fossil fuels in 40 years’ time, so we have to work out a way to halt global warming before the world has stopped using fossil fuels.
  • The only way to do this is to ensure that one tonne of CO2 is safely and permanently stored, not just dumped into the atmosphere, for every tonne generated by continued use of fossil fuels.
  • Right now, this stored fraction is less than 0.1%, and increasing at least 100 times too slowly to limit warming to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C.

The Idea

  • In order to incentivise development and growth of long-term CO2 storage, extractors and importers of fossil fuels are required to permanently store a percentage of the CO2 generated by the products they sell. This is called a Carbon Takeback Obligation (CTBO).
  • Over time, as levels of cumulative emissions monotonically increase, the CTBO will increase. Based on current projections, the CTBO could start at ~1% in 2023 before increasing to 10% in 2030 and reaching 100% (which means net zero emissions) by 2050.
  • Companies need not be obliged to store CO2 themselves. We envisage the growth of a marketplace, based around tradable certificates of storage, significantly reducing costs.
  • Stored CO2 could initially come from factories, refineries and cement plants. Once these have all been tapped, getting to 100% storage would mean recapturing CO2 from the atmosphere.

What makes Carbon Takeback Appealing?

  • PREDICTABLE. Industry discovers its own least-cost means of permanent storage to meet a predictably-escalating obligation. The regulatory burden is light.
  • TAXLESS. No direct taxpayer subsidy, price support mechanisms, or taxes.
  • AFFORDABLE. The initially high costs of geological storage (£40-100/tCO2 depending on source) are manageable because they are spread over the full volume of fossil fuels sold. For example, sequestering 10% of emissions adds just £0.7-£1.8 to the cost of a barrel of oil, less than current carbon prices. Costs decline over time as more projects are built to satisfy the CTBO.
  • SAFE. CO2 is stored permanently underground, not in vulnerable ecosystems.

The public already intuitively holds fossil fuel companies responsible for climate change, and some (e.g. BP, Shell) are starting to accept that conclusion as well. Carbon Takeback simply makes that responsibility official and equitable, updating our social contract with the fossil fuel sector, and making them part of the solution, rather than the source of the problem.

Carbon Takeback is the ideal ‘big idea’ for the UK to lead with at COP26

  • If incorporated into the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC, Carbon Takeback would represent a dramatic increase in ambition as the first climate policy directly linked to achieving Net Zero.
  • This would have minimal impact on UK competitiveness: obliging industry to store up to 10% of extracted and imported fuels by 2030 would add less to the cost of carbon-based products than the current UK carbon floor price.
  • This policy is the simplest and most efficient way of getting a fleet of initial CO2 storage projects built, so we can validate costs and start reducing them through learning.

Carbon Takeback bolsters existing UK plans for CO2 storage under the North Sea

  • The UK already plans to sequester ~10 MtCO2/year by 2030 at a series of industrial hubs (e.g. Teesside).
  • This would constitute about 2.5% of fossil fuel extraction and imports, a welcome first step, but well short of the 10% required for a smooth transition to 100% storage, or net zero emissions, by 2050.
  • Instituting Carbon Takeback gets us the rest of the way. Happily, we can reuse existing infrastructure – pipelines connecting Britain’s North Sea coast to depleted oil and gas fields are instantly transformed from a £24 billion decommissioning liability to a valuable asset. These depleted fields contain enough storage space for at least 200 years of UK emissions.
  • All of this enables a just transition, including thousands of new jobs, a new offshore industry, and exportable skills.

Carbon Takeback enlists the fossil fuel industry to help the UK deliver net zero by 2050

CarbonTakeback.org is an information resource supported by Oxford Net Zero and the ClimateWorks Foundation, although the views expressed herein are those of the site authors