Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Why natural gas is not a bridge technology

The expansion of the natural gas infrastructure poses a risk to the energy transition, since natural gas is not a bridge technology towards a 100 percent renewable energy system within the meaning of the Paris climate agreement. This is the result of a study by an interdisciplinary German research team. July 2022 in the journal Nature Energy. The researchers examine the natural gas question from five perspectives and provide the gas with a similarly poor climate balance sheet as coal or oil. They recommend politics and science to revise the current assumptions about natural gas.

The study was led by Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) and the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in collaboration with Franziska Hoffart from the Ruhr University Bochum, Fabian Präger from the Technical University of Berlin and Isabell Braunger and Hanna Brauers from the European University Flensburg.

Energy crisis is only one side of the problem

In the wake of the Russian war of aggression, the government in Germany faces the challenge of reducing Russia's energy dependency and continuing to ensure an affordable and secure energy supply that is in line with climate targets. Efforts are currently underway to balance Russian natural gas, the delivery of which is throttled and unsafe, by building new gas trading relationships and new infrastructure. Claudia Kemfert, head of the study, explains: “Fossil natural gas is neither clean nor safe. The too long adherence to fossil natural gas has led Germany into an energy crisis, from which now only decisive action for consistent decarbonization can lead to a full supply of renewable energies”.

Natural gas use is not per se beneficial to coal and oil

The researchers question widespread assumptions about natural gas from five perspectives. The focus is on risks associated with the further expansion of natural gas infrastructure and the continued heavy use of natural gas. While the idea of clean natural gas is still widespread, extensive research shows that the climate impact of natural gas use is significantly underestimated and that fossil fuels are by no means the better alternative to coal and oil use per se. “The problem is not just CO2, but the highly effective greenhouse gas methane, which escapes into the atmosphere unburned by volatile emissions along the entire value chain. So far, these emissions have not been sufficiently taken into account and underestimated,” explains Fabian Präger.

The narrative of bridge technology is misleading

In addition, the researchers find that the expansion of natural gas infrastructure can lead to path dependencies (“lock-in effects”) and economic climate risks such as the premature loss in value of fossil assets (“stranded assets”). “Investments in fossil energy infrastructure cement fossil dependencies and emissions for decades. There are enormous economic costs and fossil path dependencies that delay the exit from fossil energy and the establishment of a 100 percent renewable energy system. Infrastructure that is not compatible with the climate goals threatens early decommissioning with economic losses,” emphasizes Franziska Hoffart.

Five measures

The scientists propose five measures to avoid these risks:

  1. Management of methane emissions across the natural gas value chain
  2. The revision of the assumptions of scenario analyzes based on new research findings on greenhouse gas emissions in connection with natural gas
  3. Replacing the narrative of bridge technology with clear and decisive decarbonization criteria
  4. Avoiding additional natural gas lock-ins and methane leaks
  5. The serious and strict inclusion of climate-related risks in energy infrastructure planning

"With the findings, we want to enrich the academic and public discussion about the future of fossil natural gas and infrastructure with a critical perspective," says Isabell Braunger. “The paper is aimed not only at the scientific community, but especially at governments that develop strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. Because investments in natural gas infrastructure can stop the energy transition and pose enormous economic risks,” emphasizes Hanna Brauers.

Interdisciplinary work shows gaps in the current discourse

The special thing about the work is the combination of different perspectives to take a holistic view of the topic. It was possible for the researchers through its diverse background in economics, industrial engineering, politics and ethics. "We are showing that the current discussion is incomplete and that a holistic and interdisciplinary research approach to the energy transition and social-ecological transformation processes provides in-depth insights," said the authors. In summary, it is emphasized: “The climate and geopolitical energy crisis surrounding fossil fuels underlines the need for a timely and consistent natural gas phase-out, which must be organized and implemented by society as a whole."

Source/Credit: Ruhr University Bochum