New Research Models Application of Extended Producer Responsibility to Fossil Fuel Industry

Environmental Research Letters article finds that requiring fossil fuel producers to pay for carbon cleanup is a solution that can achieve climate goals at a relatively affordable cost

OXFORD, January 12, 2023 — A paper published today in Environmental Research Letters, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, models the application of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to fossil fuels. “Extended producer responsibility for fossil fuels,” authored by Stuart Jenkins, Margriet Kuijper, Hugh Helferty, Cécile Girardin, and Myles Allen, concludes that compelling fossil fuel producers to pay for carbon cleanup could end these fuels’ contribution to global warming without pitting climate action against meeting society’s energy needs—at a relatively affordable cost.

EPR is a principle holding producers of waste-generating products responsible for cleaning up the waste generated by the products they sell. The paper applies this principle to fossil fuels, as 100 percent of the carbon contained within these products is waste carbon dioxide (CO2) that currently ends up dumped into the atmosphere. The fossil fuel industry has enormous financial and technological resources that could be used to develop and deploy efficient and permanent carbon storage solutions, should they be compelled to pay for the cleanup of this waste carbon.

The new paper demonstrates through extensive modeling that implementing EPR can reduce and ultimately prevent further global warming from fossil fuels at an affordable cost relative to conventional solutions. Importantly, EPR would be most effective when applied in combination with conventional solutions, including a carbon price. It would also ensure that the fossil fuel industry, currently making extraordinary profits from high fossil fuel prices, plays its part in addressing the climate challenge.

One EPR-based policy is the Carbon Takeback Obligation (CTBO), a requirement that all fossil fuels extracted or imported into a region, nation or group of nations, be offset by storing, back underground, an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that generated by that fuel. A CTBO, phased in over time, would reach the requirement of storing 100 percent of emissions by 2050. Unlike a carbon tax, which simply makes polluting more expensive, a CTBO ensures carbon clean-up and makes the cost a part of the cost of fossil fuel production.

As the paper demonstrates, EPR works best alongside strong conventional policies which are mostly aimed at reducing demand for fossil fuels, not as a substitute for them. The transition to non-fossil energy sources, while crucial, will not wean us off fossil fuels globally for at least several decades. The goal of EPR is therefore to target the supply side of the equation, to reduce the disastrous impact of any continued fossil fuel use until this transition is entirely completed.

Calls to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas turn, in many cases, to investing in new non-Russian fossil fuel production, which appears to be in direct conflict with climate goals. If such production is to take place, then it is vital that the principle of EPR is put in place to regulate the cleanup of the resulting carbon dioxide emissions. If we are to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change, fossil fuel production cannot continue unabated.

“What we’ve demonstrated is that, if we implement Extended Producer Responsibility in combination with other climate solutions, we can protect our energy security while taking meaningful climate action,” said Stuart Jenkins, the lead author of the paper, who is currently pursuing a PhD at Oxford University. “This is incredibly important at a moment when nations have made it clear that they will prioritize the former over the latter.”

A key innovation in this study is the combination of policies to scale up geological carbon dioxide storage with restoring carbon to the biosphere through ecosystem restoration. Cécile Girardin, a co-author, said, “Nature-based Solutions can play a vital role in accelerating the transition to net zero, with multiple benefits to ecosystems, biodiversity, society, and human wellbeing. Yet the permanence of biological carbon sinks relies on resilient ecosystems, and limiting peak warming to 1.5C. This is only possible if nature-based solutions for climate change mitigation are implemented in addition to, not instead of, reducing fossil fuel use and scaling up engineered storage at unprecedented rates.”

At a press briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre, Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative, said, “We currently pay over 10p per kWh for natural gas in the UK. No one likes this, but the problem is not high prices per se, but the fact that they went up so fast. 3 years ago, if you shopped around, you could buy gas for less than 3p per kWh. The cost of extracting and delivering that gas has not changed. Meanwhile, the cost of capturing every single molecule of CO2 that gas generates back out of the atmosphere and storing it back under the North Sea is about 4p per kWh. So with what we pay for natural gas, we could stop that gas from causing global warming almost twice over.”

The full paper can be accessed here.