In times of an urgent climate crisis and climate movements, the calls for alternatives to dirty fossil fuels become louder and louder. The biggest climate enemies we know about so far are oil and coal. They emit considerable amounts of CO2 and we will inevitably have to stop using them to keep global temperatures within livable ranges.
What big corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell and BP try to sell as a solution for the climate instead, is natural gas. But looking closer at climate science teaches us that gas is a dirty fossil fuel, too. And that it is more than toxic for our global climate.
What we call “natural gas” is mainly methane and once this methane is burned, it indeed emits less CO2 than burning oil or coal does. Is that CO2 reduction enough to reach needed levels of greenhouse gas reductions? No!
And CO2 is only one part of the puzzle: The issue with gas, on top of carbon dioxide emissions, is unburned methane that is leaking into the atmosphere all along the supply chain of gas. Most of it is emitted during extraction, and the increasing use of fracking makes emissions much worse. Additionally, methane slips during transport via pipelines and boats. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, much more powerful than one would think.
If we look at a time-frame of 20 years, until 2040, methane, has an impact that is almost 90 (yes, ninety!) times stronger than the impact of CO2. We will never be able to avoid methane emissions fully, and yet, even if only 2-3% of the gas we use escapes into the atmosphere, the climate footprint of the fuel is worse than that of coal.
Beyond the disastrous climate impact, there are many other issues connected to gas. Its extraction, particularly through fracking but also “conventional” ways of getting gas out of the ground, has serious “side-effects”: Chemicals used in gas extraction contaminate waterways and aquifers, communities next to drilling sites face severe health impacts, air pollution and industrialization of entire regions are other serious problems. At the same time, gas needs to be transported and communities are now mobilizing to fight fossil gas pipelines and import terminals in several European countries and beyond.
Despite all these issues linked to gas, we see a big push for costly fossil gas infrastructure all across Europe. The European Commission and the European Investment Bank provide billions of EU tax payers money to support a gas system that cannot play a role in a truly decarbonized economy. This includes terminals that import gas from all across the globe, like Qatar, Peru, Algeria or the US. Already today, European gas import terminals receive regular cargos of this chilled gas, including fracked gas from the United States.
There are many other facts around gas that few people know. One of them is that fossil gas is also used to fuel the global production of fertilizers and plastics production. The push for fracking in the US is, for instance, directly linked to plastics production in the heart of Europe; Petrochemical plants in Scotland and Norway regularly receive fracked natural gas liquids that are transformed into a feedstock for plastics production. And in Lithuania, a big share of capacity at an import terminal for liquefied natural gas is booked by a fertilizer producer. Further projects to import gas for fertilizers and plastic productions are planned, e.g. in Germany or Belgium.
The century-old link between the fossil fuel industry and decision makers is equally true in the case of gas. In an attempt to cling to the notion of gas and justify its continuous use, the fossil industry uses a range of concepts: Green gas, decarbonized gas or the notion of “reliable” gas as a partner for renewables. In our current system, people will always bear the costs, while big gas companies will reap the profits. Gas, and all the green lies we are told about it, should not distract us from a firm path towards a clean energy future with community-owned renewable energy generation, energy efficiency and sustainable amounts of energy use.