Is natural gas really the transition fuel the world needs?
Natural gas has long been touted as a transitional energy source to replace coal with renewable energy. As solar panels and wind farms are built, the theory is that natural gas could replace dirtier fuels like coal and, in some cases, oil.
But studies show that emissions from the extraction and transportation of natural gas’s main component, methane, show that natural gas is not as climate-friendly as once thought.
According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% by 2030 to meet the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement. . We spoke with Mark Radka, Head of Energy and Climate at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), about the role natural gas has to play in reducing emissions and transitioning to a carbon-based, renewable energy future.
Is natural gas a cleaner alternative to coal or oil in terms of emissions?
Mark Radka (MR) : Natural gas is a cleaner fuel in the sense that burning it produces fewer conventional air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, than burning coal or oil. The amount depends on the characteristics of the fuel, combustion technology, quality of equipment maintenance and use, as well as other factors. In general, burning natural gas also produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than the best coal technology, and is therefore better for the climate.
Researchers have discovered large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, leaking from natural gas production facilities around the world. Does this contradict the idea that natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels?
MR : Recent scientific measurement campaigns, some supported by UNEP, have shown that methane emissions from oil and gas operations are much higher than previously estimated. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, about 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide measured over 20 years, so any emissions undermine its credibility as the best fossil fuel. So “cleaner” isn’t the best word to describe natural gas. But if methane emissions are well managed, it is not as problematic for global warming as coal or oil.
Is it unrealistic to expect fossil fuel companies to control methane leaks?
MR : I think it is unrealistic to expect all fossil fuel companies to police themselves. Regulations limiting emission levels and their enforcement are undoubtedly very important. But many companies are willing to act even without regulatory pressure. We work with many companies that have committed to setting methane reduction targets by 2025, measuring their methane emissions, taking action to reduce them and reporting on the results. Detection technologies are improving and UNEP is working with partners to provide open and transparent emissions data. Methane leaks are costly, so companies are interested in reducing them economically.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the construction of liquefied natural gas terminals around the world, especially in Germany and China, has reportedly started, which has led to an increase in the percentage of methane transported by sea. Are ships more prone to methane leaks than pipelines?
MR : The unequivocal answer is that we don’t know at the moment, but in principle we could. There is a lack of empirically validated measurement data in the natural gas industry, which is why UNEP launched the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). Most methane data are based on estimated emission factors rather than actual measurements. UNEP’s aim with IMEO is to provide factual answers to such questions.
UNEP’s report on the gap between needs and prospects for reducing GHG emissions states that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 to avoid the scale of a large-scale climate crisis. Is natural gas a good transition fuel for countries looking to move away from coal and oil?
MR : It all depends on the speed of the transition, which, according to science, must be fast to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. A long or slow transition away from other fossil fuels, which require a lot of investment in gas infrastructure, would be a bad transition. In many countries, natural gas has replaced coal as the fuel of choice for power generation due to its climate and air quality advantages. The rapidly falling cost of solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies is making them a better alternative to gas in more and more places. Gas plays a special role in the energy transition as a backup solution for a system that generates electricity from renewable energy sources, because gas boilers can be ignited almost immediately, while a coal-fired power plant takes longer to start up. Energy storage technologies are widely researched and implemented, so this role of gas is set to diminish.
Why are some countries still choosing to invest in natural gas even though renewable energy costs have never been lower? What are the main issues with the transition to wind and solar energy?
MR : It is important to remember that not all energy sources are interchangeable with current technologies. Aviation and shipping are still primarily dependent on fossil fuels, as are some so-called “hard-to-eliminate” industrial sectors such as iron smelting. Much research and development is ongoing and much is still needed in areas such as storage, but we are not yet at the stage where all fossil fuels can be replaced by renewables. The world is becoming increasingly electrified, and wind and solar power will become increasingly important, especially where renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are abundant. It is important to remember that we are only in the early stages of an energy transition that the world has never attempted in terms of speed and complexity. But this is a transition, and any transition takes time and perseverance. That is, we must act quickly.
Are there better alternatives to natural gas for countries that can’t afford to invest in wind or solar?
MR : Every country and every person needs to think more critically about energy efficiency. We never value energy for its own sake, but rather the many services that energy makes possible. I’m talking here about communication, lighting and thermal comfort, mobility, propulsion, etc.