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UAE, other Gulf states shift from talk to action on carbon capture tech

The idea of capturing and storing carbon emissions instead of letting them enter the atmosphere is gaining momentum in some parts of the Gulf region. It is also the necessary tool to rebrand hydrogen produced from fossil fuels from "gray" to "blue."
Al Dhafra Solar Photovoltaic Independent Power Producer project is seen during a visit by the French economy minister, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 31, 2023.

The United Arab Emirates' (UAE) state-owned fossil fuel company greenlighted in early September a plan to build one of the Middle East’s largest carbon capture projects. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) said the Habshan project will capture and store 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year in geological formations underground and bring ADNOC's carbon capture capacity to 2.3 million tons per year. The Gulf country emits about 194 million tons annually of the greenhouse gas, according to a European Commission's emissions database.

The move is part of a broader push by Gulf countries to focus on managing planet-warming gases rather than following Western nations’ calls to get rid of fossil fuels themselves. Gulf countries have made timid moves in recent years to live up to the hype of a suite of CO2 management solutions often grouped under the term carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). ADNOC said in January that it will launch a pilot project in Fujairah in partnership with 44.01, an Omani start-up, to capture CO2, dissolve it into seawater and then inject it into rock formations underground where it will mineralize. “Unlike CO2 storage, mineralization removes CO2 permanently by turning it into rock,” a press release quoted 44.01's CEO Talal Hasan saying.

The UAE also wants to “show to the global community that they are not just talking about net zero, that they are actually putting these projects in place,” said Wathik Alaaraji, a UAE-based CCUS expert. The federation of seven sheikhdoms will host the United Nations’ annual climate summit later this year in Dubai and has pledged to reach net zero by 2050. Alaaraji told Al-Monitor there has been “a lot more momentum” for carbon capture in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE in recent years. “In Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, there are talks but there is still a gap between discussing it and making it happen,” he noted.

A study released in 2021 by the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency wrote that although CCUS should not be a tool for propping up fossil fuel use, “they do have a role in addressing aspects of emissions reduction that other technologies cannot.” The captured CO2 can also be recycled into new products such as plastics, carbonated drinks, synthetic fuels, animal feed, building material, among other things. However, critics remain doubtful as CO2 molecules will eventually be released into the atmosphere when synthetic fuels and plastics are burnt.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region had a total of 13 CCUS projects planned or operational as of March, data compiled by the International Energy Agency showed. The total annual capture capacity is estimated at 20 million tons of CO2. That is about 1.8% of GCC’s annual collective emissions of CO2 emissions, estimated at 1.1 billion tons in 2021. The figure does not include vast quantities of CO2 released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels supplied by the Gulf’s energy companies to consumer markets are used.

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