Navigating the Complex Terrain of Global Decarbonization

In August, dozens of world leaders attended the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa—a gathering that grabbed international headlines when it was revealed that some of the world’s dominant energy players, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were invited to join the bloc.

Amid the fanfare and political maneuvering, what emerges is an unprecedented opportunity to form a potent global alliance for climate action. Such an alliance could accelerate the development of crucial climate technologies and ensure a measured, sustainable shift towards a low-carbon economy.

The discussions in Johannesburg revolved around a unifying theme: the commitment to decarbonize existing resources like natural gas and liquified natural gas (LNG), which remain central to the economic advancement of many BRICS nations. Yet, the road ahead is not without its complexities. Many of these countries have shown enthusiasm for carbon-reducing projects, recognizing their dual potential to bolster energy security and achieve net-zero objectives. Still, significant challenges linger when it comes to amplifying these solutions on a grand scale.

Take carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) as examples. These are promising technologies percolating on the margins of transformational change, yet they have not yet scaled to a level where their decarbonizing potential can be fully realized. The barriers they face are multifaceted, ranging from regulatory red tape and taxation bottlenecks to the need for financial incentives. Then there are the purely technical challenges—engineering feats that are yet to be mastered.

To surmount these obstacles, collective endeavor is imperative. This opens a unique window for the eclectic BRICS member states to assume a leadership role in fine-tuning this potentially revolutionary technology. Prioritizing CCS and CCUS within the broader energy industry—and promoting their scale through partnerships and joint ventures—should be high on the policy agenda for any group of nations striving to lead the clean energy transition.

In a hopeful development, the landscape for CCS and CCUS is broad and brimming with innovation. With sufficient backing from global leaders and the public sector, rapid advancements in existing solutions and the unveiling of novel carbon capture techniques are well within reach. Nature-based solutions—such as the conservation and restoration of ecosystems to act as carbon sinks—are particularly promising.

Methods like afforestation, the protection of wetlands and mangroves, or the adoption of regenerative agriculture have the dual benefits of removing carbon from the atmosphere and often falling under governmental jurisdiction through conservation and agricultural policies.

Beyond the conventional definitions of energy projects, which typically focus on large capital expenditures, there is a burgeoning recognition of the value in projects aimed at operational efficiency. Engineers might traditionally define efficiency in terms of cost-savings, but in the age of climate change, using fewer resources to achieve greater outputs translates directly into reduced carbon emissions. The beauty of energy efficiency projects is their minimal upfront carbon cost, virtually eliminating the risk of exacerbating emissions.

For a wholesale transformation to a low-carbon future, isolated efforts are insufficient. The old paradigm of siloed initiatives, whether within countries or industries, must be discarded. Instead, international collaborations like BRICS and key industry events such as ADIPEC, slated to occur in the UAE later this week, offer fertile grounds for cross-sector dialogues and innovations. With events like ADIPEC and the upcoming COP28, also in the UAE, serving as critical platforms, the newly expanded BRICS bloc stands at a pivotal juncture to stimulate further advancements in decarbonization.

The legislative landscape is also ripe for influence. Last year, the U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act, an important milestone that galvanized the country’s transition to clean energy and spurred investment in decarbonization. This serves as an eloquent testimony to the weight governments carry in determining the energy sector’s trajectory. As BRICS looks to expand its footprint, the acceleration of carbon-reducing strategies offers more than just promise—it offers an imperative.

In the struggle to decarbonize, the complexities are many, but so too are the opportunities for transformative change. And in this unfolding drama, events like the BRICS confab serve as critical acts, ones that could shape the outcome in this most existential of challenges.