The head of the Cop28 climate talks has called for “phasing out fossil fuel emissions”, teeing up a debate between governments over the role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in the fight against climate change.

In a speech setting out his agenda for the talks in Dubai in December, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) climate envoy Sultan Al-Jaber told a gathering of climate ministers in Berlin: “In a pragmatic, just and well-managed energy transition, we must be laser focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions while phasing and scaling up viable, affordable zero-carbon alternatives.”

A broad coalition of nations have been pushing for an agreement to “phase out fossil fuels” at Cop28, so the addition of the word “emissions” is likely to be seen as a loophole for continuing to use such fuels if their emissions are kept out of the atmosphere with CCS.

Although the burning of fossil fuels is the key driver of climate change, they were for decades not mentioned in joint agreements put out by governments at international climate talks.

But at Cop26 in the UK in 2021, countries agreed to “phase down” the most polluting fossil fuel coal, after India and China objected to the term “phase out”.

At Cop27 in Egypt the next year, a broad coalition of nations pushed for a commitment to “phase out” fossil fuels.

But Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia opposed that language and the host Egypt did not include it in the final text.

While they accepted that agreement, the governments of countries like Germany, Chile and Tuvalu said they were dissapointed.

In February, UAE environment minister Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri told the Munich Security Conference that the oil and gas sector should decarbonise and “then phase out oil and gas in a just way”. But she also said “we need the oil and gas sector to be with us”.

As well as calling for the targeting of “fossil fuel emissions”, Al Jaber today called for “smart government regulation to…make carbon capture commercially viable”.

Al Jaber leads the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and, in November 2021, called for increased global investment in oil and gas.

“The future is clean but it is not here yet. We must make progress with pragmatism,” he told an Abu Dhabi oil conference.

A focus on “fossil fuel emissions” rather than fossil fuels is likely to anger some nations. Last week, one European official told Climate Home that the “strongest voices” in favour of CCS “are currently coming from fossil exporting countries”.

The official said that CCS “will play a key role” in some sectors that are hard to clean up. “But for now, it’s an expensive option, a luxury technology”, they said, and renewables and energy efficiency “are the most affordable and readily available mitigation technologies”.

The U.S, which is the world’s biggest oil and gas producer, takes a different stance. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine, the U.S’s climate envoy John Kerry spoke about the damage fossil fuels cause, then corrected himself.

“Unabated fossil fuels,” he said. “Let me be clear on this. Unabated is a critical component of this. If you can capture 100 percent and do something useful with this and build the infrastructure and its cost-competitive, go for it!”

Other major oil and gas producers, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, have also talked up CCS. Russia’s deputy prime minister Alexey Overchuk told a recent World Bank meeting that carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) was “of utmost importance to the green agenda” while a Saudi minister said it had “great potential to serve the climate mitigation agenda”.

CCS remains expensive and unproven at large scale.

According to the IPCC’s scientists, stopping a tonne of carbon dioxide with CCUS costs between US$50 and US$200. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables usually saves money.

There are currently only 35 commercial facilities applying CCUS with a total annual capture capacity of 45 Mt CO2, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Most are in North America and in the gas processing industry.

Many climate campaigners have called it a “distraction” that gives fossil fuel companies a licence to keep extracting more climate-harming coal, oil and gas.

But the IEA’s head Fatih Birol disagrees, calling it “critical for ensuring our transitions to clean energy are secure and sustainable”