The expansion of natural gas infrastructure puts energy transitions at risk

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2022-07-05 17:30:08

Whether additional natural gas infrastructure is needed or would be detrimental to achieving climate protection goals is currently highly controversial. Here we combine five perspectives to argue why expansion of the natural gas infrastructure hinders a renewable energy future and is no bridge technology. We highlight that natural gas is a fossil fuel with a significantly underestimated climate impact that hinders decarbonization through carbon lock-in and stranded assets. We propose five ways to avoid common shortcomings for countries that are developing strategies for greenhouse gas reduction: manage methane emissions of the entire natural gas value chain, revise assumptions of scenario analyses with new research insights on greenhouse gas emissions related to natural gas, replace the ‘bridge’ narrative with unambiguous decarbonization criteria, avoid additional natural gas lock-ins and methane leakage, and take climate-related risks in energy infrastructure planning seriously.

Despite growing concerns about the negative impacts of natural gas, its production and consumption experienced a steep growth until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic1. Consequently, CO2 emissions related to natural gas grew by 2.6% per year between 2009 and 20182. Continuing investments in the natural gas infrastructure were justified by promoting them as beneficial for the transition to renewable energy sources and by presenting natural gas as a climate-friendly alternative to coal and oil3,4,5. Globally, a massive expansion of natural gas infrastructure is underway: almost 500 GW of natural gas-fired power plants are planned or under construction6. Meanwhile, new liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals with a capacity of 635 million tonnes of natural gas per year7 as well as LNG export terminals with a capacity of 700 million tonnes per year are under development7. These figures are likely to increase in the future, as a new geopolitical order has been created after Russia entered war with Ukraine. The European Union is now going to great lengths to become independent of Russian gas supplies, which still accounted for more than 40% of the total gas imports to the European Union by February 2022. Germany is responding to this new situation with a draft law that approves up to 11 LNG terminals (seven offshore and four onshore units) under accelerated permitting procedures; these terminals can import fossil natural gas until 20438. Although these expansion plans will create new material realities, political and scientific controversy is growing as to whether the use of natural gas and the related infrastructure should be expanded. In light of climate protection goals, and the fact that natural gas itself is one of the biggest causes of climate change, questions now arise as to whether a rapid decline in natural gas use might be necessary, instead of expansion.

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