The role of natural gas seems to have increased exponentially over recent years, as countries look for a fuel to bridge the gap between more intensive fossil fuels and a greener, renewable energy future, but a new report has warned of the need to take the “foot off the gas,” so to speak, to ensure we don’t create stranded assets and breach the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal.
These are the key findings from a new report published today by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) initiative, a coalition of independent scientific analysis headed by Climate Analytics, Ecofys, and the NewClimate Institute, entitled Foot off the gas: increased reliance on natural gas in the power sector risks an emissions lock-in. Specifically, the new report warns that natural gas needs to be phased out alongside coal, not afterwards, if the world is to limit the warming to 1.5°C. Further, the CAT report predicts that natural gas will inherently begin to drop off in use through the middle of this century — not only because it must, if we are to adhere to the long-term temperature goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, but also due to the growth in and reliance upon renewable energy technologies.
Maybe one of the most important aspects of this report is its role in challenging the current business-as-usual thinking. Many outlooks project that natural gas consumption will continue to increase this century. However, even though these projects have proven repeatedly to be overly bullish, governments and companies are nevertheless relying heavily on them and investing strongly in natural gas infrastructure, ignoring the role that we have seen low-carbon alternatives grow to play, and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change.
“On the future of gas in the power sector, we find that many projections, including from the IEA, and expectations of some investors — including many governments — not only fail to consider the need for complete decarbonisation within three decades, but also ignore the increasing role and potential of low and zero carbon alternatives,” the authors of the report detail.
“Current investment in new gas infrastructure increases the risk of stranded assets, paving the way to a fossil fuel dependency that runs contrary to the Paris Agreement.”
The global share of electricity generated from natural gas increased from 15% in 1990 to 22% in 2014 (and it is likely that figure has only grown over the last several years). Unsurprisingly — given all we know about the country’s drop-off in coal generation and transition to natural gas — the United States saw the biggest change, with a 54% increase in natural gas usage over 10 years, which resulted in 2016 in natural gas surpassing coal as the leading source of power for the first time in the country. In Japan, the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) importer in the world, natural gas served to replace the sudden drop-off in nuclear energy due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.
However, as the authors of the report note, “Even though gas has played an important role in modestly improving the carbon intensity of the power sector over the last decade, it is not a viable long-term solution to mitigating climate change.”
“Natural gas is often perceived as a ‘clean’ source of energy that complements variable renewable technologies,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics. “However, there are persistent issues with fugitive emissions during gas extraction and transport that show that gas is not as ‘clean’ as often thought. Natural gas will disappear from the power sector in a Paris Agreement-compatible world, where emissions need to be around zero by mid-century.”
The report also concludes that, while emissions from gas plants can be reduced by up to 90% with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, this is still not sufficient for full decarbonization, which is what is needed as we move forward.
“The idea of a continuing role for natural gas as a bridging technology is not consistent with the reality of advances in flexibility enabling technologies, such as grid expansion, supply and demand response, as well as storage,” said Yvonne Deng of Ecofys, a Navigant company.
CAT also takes aim at many of the projections made by big-name organizations and companies — including the International Energy Agency, investors, and many governments — which continue to perpetuate a false role for natural gas.
“One example is China, where in 2016 the IEA projected renewables would rise to 7.2% of the power supply by 2020 — but by the end of 2016 they had already reached 8%,” explained said Niklas Höhne from NewClimate Institute. “Additionally, India and the Middle East are also seeing renewables rising much faster than mainstream projections.”
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