Wake up and smell the methane: Europe has nine years left of its carbon budget

| 9th November 2017
A freighter carrying natural gas. (C) www.gibraltarolivepress.
A freighter carrying natural gas. (C) www.gibraltarolivepress.
Professor Kevin Anderson and Dr John Broderick have published a new report commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe examining the climate impact of natural gas. The findings contradict industry public relations, KATIE HODGETTS argues.
These dangerous narratives on gas are leaking into the policy sphere

The ubiquitous power of money is no secret. Its touch has been etched into elections, wars and institutions, and all too often has it suffocated environmental debates.

Today, it jeopardizes the progression of a clean, fair future, as fossil fuel interests continue their war of attrition to undermine action on climate change.

Historically, to defend business-as-usual, lobbyist ammunition was climate change denial. However, with shifting energy politics, their latest weapon is packaging fossil gas as ‘green' and a ‘transitional fuel'.

Infrastructure and investment

The giant PR wheel is spinning, and the ‘clean gas' memo is subsequently being woven into policy briefs, negotiation spaces and contemporary narratives.

Seeking to unstitch these fallacies, Friends of the Earth Europe commissioned a study from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Teesside University entitled ‘Natural gas and climate change.'

Its content sheds light on the true climate impacts of fossil gas, its place in a zero-emission future, and where our current gas addiction could take us.

The authors, Professor Kevin Anderson and Doctor John Broderick, shockingly conclude that if we continue down this natural gas trajectory, the EU will use up its 2°C energy-only carbon budget in just nine years.

If we are to limit average global temperature rises to 2°C as in the terms of the Paris Agreement things need to change, and fast. Pillared by false assumptions, gas has become politically palatable, with consumer demand, infrastructure and investment all set to increase.

Gas lifecycle

In fact, the International Energy Agency predicts a 50 percent increase in gas demand by 2040.

A powerful PR campaign has re-birthed gas as the ‘cleanest fossil fuel', shifting policy imperatives away from coal and oil, towards gas as a ‘bridge to a clean energy future.' This is a fallacy (take note Obama!).

Whilst it's true that CO2 emissions during combustion of fossil gas are lower than that of coal and oil, this industry catch-phrase is only one facet of this climactic picture, devoid of considerations of methane emissions or the entire life-cycle emissions of the gas supply chain.

These dangerous narratives on gas are leaking into the policy sphere

So-called ‘natural gas' is primarily composed of methane, which has 86 times more Global Warming Potential (GWP) than CO2 in a 20 year time period.

Methane leaks directly into the atmosphere intentionally and accidentally all along the gas lifecycle.

Additional emissions 

Whilst the invisibility of gas leaks creates ambiguity in quantifying total gas emissions, recent peer-reviewed studies estimate U.S. gas industry emissions 50 to 60 percent higher than official numbers published by the U.S. administration.

Even with this uncertainty in mind, Anderson and Broderick find that overall methane emissions are at dangerously high levels, in line with the most pessimistic end of scenarios as postulated by the International Panel on Climate Change.

They find that all the man-made methane emissions, including these gas leaks, are likely to add 0.6°C global warming. To me, this does not sound ‘clean' or ‘green'. But that's not all.

The revival of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) sector has brought with it a huge carbon footprint. LNG is fossil gas that has been cooled to -160°C into a liquid to shrink its volume by 600 times. It is then stored and transported across the globe via ships, and turned back into gas at regasification terminals.

Anderson and Broderick find that ‘the additional emissions of LNG and long distance pipelines are approximately double those of short distance conventional production'.

Shifting impetus

The additional emissions from LNG mean that its lifecycle emissions can be as high as 134 percent of the end use combustion of CO2.'

Clearly, focus from lobbyists on end combustion has distracted from the much wider and larger life-cycle emissions of gas, including methane leaks and LNG.

These figures are unsurprisingly seldom referenced by industrialists, who have capitalized on the fallacy of gas being clean and expanded production accordingly.

For example, Total's natural gas production accounted for just a third of its output ten years ago. In 2016, it accounted for over 48 percent, which it justifies as a strategic decision in response ‘to concerns about climate change'.

More importantly than this, these dangerous narratives on gas are leaking into the policy sphere, with shifting impetus on gas infrastructure creating an energy lock-in (pipelines are typically designed to have a useful life of about 50 years!).

Gas is becoming a central component of EU's energy policy, with new gas projects, like the Southern Gas Corridor from Azerbaijan to Italy, and extraction of new sources, like shale gas, being presented as important contributions to the energy transition.

Clean energy future

But gas is not a companion to a renewable energy future, it is competition. We must move forward carrying the message of Anderson and Broderick; ‘In delivering a mitigation programme for 2°C, there is categorically no role for bringing additional fossil fuel reserves, including gas, into production.'

Instead, they specify a reduction of energy-only carbon emissions of 95 percent by 2035, meaning that more than 2/3 of reserves need to remain in the ground.

The EU must reflect seriously on the findings of this study. If our gas frenzy continues, we risk devastating temperature rises which will confront nations with the lowest gross-emissions with the fiercest impacts.

And who will bear the brunt of this disaster? My generation. I wish not to reside in a world where geopolitics and money gain more traction that equity and sustainability.

If our planet has any hope of establishing parameters of justice, then Europe needs to relinquish its addiction to gas. Gas is not a bridge to a clean energy future. It is a dead-end.

This Author

Katie Hodgetts is a member of the Economic Justice Team at Friends of the Earth Europe. Katie Tweets at @katiehodgettssx. FOE Europe can be followed on Twitter, at @foeeurope.


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