Natural gas is a bridge to climate and nature disaster
Posted on 28 March 2023
There is no time for natural gas: A transition directly to renewables is the only way to solve the climate and nature crises. The good news? It’s 100% possible, writes WWF’s Global Energy Lead Dean Cooper.As the IPCC indicated in its latest synthesis report, "There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all. The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years."
To have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C and avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis for people and nature, it’s widely accepted that there must be no further oil exploration. So why is gas still being promoted as a so-called ‘transition fuel’?
This is likely in no small part due to the fact that fossil fuel companies just had their most profitable year in history, racking up ~4 trillion USD in profits in 2022 on the backs of higher energy prices as a result of the energy crisis, including record high natural gas prices in some markets. However, the evidence is clear that there is no more time for any fossil fuels before the required move to renewables.
Every year, the World Economic Forum ranks the biggest risks to humanity for the next 10 years. In 2023, all the top 5 risks were a result of direct or indirect impacts from climate change and nature loss. All of these risks are exacerbated by our addiction to fossil fuels, and could be abated by stronger action to address the climate crisis.
Did you catch that timeframe? The next 10 years! And yet, many of the world’s leaders talk about these emergencies related to 2050.
If we want to mitigate the top five risks facing humanity, we have to act now to reduce emissions and limit warming to 1.5°C. And this temperature limit is critical – the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C may seem small, but it means more floods, droughts, heatwaves and freezing temperatures, more food insecurity, more extinctions and biodiversity loss – and trillions of dollars lost.
And yet, in the past year, there has been increasing pressure for new natural gas development all over the world. The fossil fuel industry argues that natural gas will be a “bridge” for the energy transition, displacing coal and diesel, and balancing out power grids to help reach targets that are 25+ years away.
The five natural gas mis-truths
There are five commonly touted natural gas facts that are used to argue gas will be a transition fuel. All start from a place of truth, but use these facts to present a false and dangerous narrative – that we need more gas.
The first fact is natural gas combustion does indeed emit less carbon than coal. The IEA’s analysis suggests that on average, coal-to-gas switching reduces emissions by 50% when producing electricity and by 33% when providing heat. But the reality is that even though it emits less, it still emits. Whereas, renewables do not.
There is no room in the earth’s carbon budget to switch from coal to natural gas. According to the IPCC, to give the world a ⅔ chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, we can only afford to emit ~280 Giga tonnes more CO2. If global emissions stay the same (although they are still rising), we will have emitted all of that by 2029. If the world replaced all coal with natural gas tomorrow, it would mean our carbon budget would run out only 1 year later - still plunging us into climate catastrophe by the end of the decade.
The second fact is that the fall-out from the pandemic and energy crisis has driven a cost-of-living crises in many countries around the world. It is true that electricity and natural gas prices reached record highs in some markets in 2022, however, this does not mean more natural gas projects are needed to help provide energy security and affordability. Renewables like wind and solar are, on average, the cheapest source of electricity worldwide. Furthermore, they provide countries with energy security, while relying on imported natural gas increases sensitivity to geopolitical events. Renewables are also the easiest, fastest way to provide energy access to the over 700 million people who currently live without electricity.
The third fact is natural gas projects have provided large sums of money for countries and governments. Many countries and companies, mainly European, American, and Middle Eastern, have generated enormous profits from the production and distribution of natural gas. However, natural gas projects are bad investments now. Natural gas plants have lifetimes of over 30 years, and considering we need net-zero power sectors by 2035, gas investments would be stranded assets in around 10 years. Not to mention the costs to economies and businesses of the impacts of the climate crisis on the horizon, if decarbonisation is not prioritized.
The fourth fact is that because the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, wind and solar alone are not enough for a stable power grid. It is right that we also need storage and power generation solutions for when the weather isn’t ideal. This should not be an obstacle to increased renewables deployment, but at high levels of penetration, it does require careful management. That said, natural gas is not needed for grid stability. Renewable solutions can manage the variable power produced by wind and solar. A range of such solutions can provide grid stability, for example battery storage, renewable hydrogen, heating and cooling storage, low-impact off-river pumped-storage hydropower and smart grids coupled with demand-response measures.
Finally, there is a myth that carbon capture and storage can simply be added to lower the emissions of natural gas. There are existing projects which capture some of the emissions from natural gas combustion and store it underground. But together these projects capture only a fraction of a percent of global natural gas emissions. They are not a silver bullet. Carbon capture and storage does not mean more natural gas is a climate solution. Carbon capture and storage is not proven at scale, and will only reduce some of the emissions (the theoretical maximum CO2 capture rates are 85-95%, and current flagship projects achieve far lower). Also, this will continue to add methane to the atmosphere via the upstream operations of natural gas extraction. Meanwhile, we have the tools for 100% renewables.
The impacts of climate change and nature loss are here and now. The past year has seen record devastation from extreme weather events. In Pakistan, record-breaking floods killed over 1,700 people, and displaced over 7.9 million. An estimated 2 million children are at risk of starvation in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia due to drought conditions. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages for at least one month of the year. Global wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970, and climate change threatens to be the dominant cause of additional loss in the coming decades.
Without immediate action, our world will likely breach dangerous climate tipping points in the next few years, including the collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, the death of practically all coral reefs, and the thawing of permafrost.
We still have a chance for a brighter future – a just transformation to a nature-positive, net-zero world that limits warming to 1.5°C is still possible. We have the tools, and we know what we need to do. But the only bridge to that brighter future is renewables. Natural gas can only be a bridge to disaster.