Expansion of natural gas infrastructure: a bridge technology or a liability for the energy transition?

Scientists for Future S4F release study on natural gas discourse

Berlin, Feb. 12, 2021 | The planned expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Germany is not justifiable in terms of climate policy, it is not compatible with Germany’s goals to meet the Paris climate accord, and even entails numerous financial risks. Moreover, it will delay the planned energy transition. These are the key messages of a new study published by Scientists for Future (S4F).

Findings and developments in the energy field are evolving quickly. Not even ten years ago, natural gas (methane) was considered  a bridge technology for the transition to a future fossil-free energy system, because it was thought to emit less CO2 than coal. However, the use of natural gas produces methane emissions as well as CO2, and recent studies show that methane’s environmental credentials have been overstated. Recent observations with satellites, more precise measurements and more differentiated observations of the overall cycle show that natural gas can be just as climate-relevant as carbon dioxide in its effect as a greenhouse gas: „The direct climate impact of methane as well as the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the use of natural gas have been underestimated for a long time,“ notes S4F member Claudia Kemfert. „When not just the direct emissions, but the greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life cycle are taken into account, the value for the specific CO2 emissions of natural gas, which used to appear comparatively positive, is strongly put into perspective.”

Direct methane emissions occur during extraction, storage, transport and consumption. Particularly in these areas, the picture has changed dramatically in recent years as the ability to record methane leaks from pipelines and other parts of the technical infrastructure has improved. As natural gas expert Hanna Brauers (S4F) notes, „Methane emissions caused by leakage, deliberate venting or flaring, especially during natural gas production, have not been included or not fully included in the calculation of the climate impact of natural gas.“

Transporting natural gas in liquefied form generates additional greenhouse gas emissions.  These arise particularly from liquefied natural gas imports, for example from Qatar or the USA, in particular due to the energy-intensive liquefaction/cooling to -160 °C and in terms of emissions are of the same order of magnitude as notoriously leaky pipeline imports from Russia.

Further expansion of natural gas structures also poses a significant risk to the financing of the energy transition. At present, 25 % of Germany’s primary energy consumption is based on natural gas. However, there will not be a supply gap in the future; as most future scenarios show a decrease in natural gas consumption. Consequently, the further expansion of natural gas infrastructure is turning into a financial liability: in Europe, Germany is the country with the second-highest gas investment plans. Around 18.3 billion euros are planned for power plants, gas networks and liquefied natural gas terminals. As natural gas consumption declines, there is a threat of premature closures and corporate lawsuits due to the European Energy Charter. In addition, this would keep these funds from being invested more sustainably in the expansion of renewable energies.

Another argument for natural gas as a bridge technology has recently been added: if hydrogen technology and infrastructure are to be developed (instead of fossil gas supply), parts of the natural gas transport structure should be suitable for this purpose (so the argument goes).  However, it is highly questionable whether future hydrogen use would require the expansion of natural gas infrastructure, even when just considering energy economics and climate policy. It would be more sustainable and important to promote the development of European capacities for hydrogen production exclusively from renewable energies and thus also the expansion of renewable energies. 

The studyExpansion of natural gas infrastructure: a bridge  technology or a liability for the energy transition?“ can be found here: https://zenodo.org/record/4536573

 Contact persons:

Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert, e-mail:   Tel.:  +49 (0)30 8978 9663

Hanna Brauers,  

Deutsche Version

Scientists For Future (S4F) supports the global climate movement by providing facts and materials based on reliable and accepted scientific data to activists, politicians, decision makers, educators and the general public. We are an independent and voluntary collective of scientists, researchers and academics from all kinds of disciplines, united by our deep concern for our shared future. Our self-organizing grassroots movement is informed by scientific evidence and motivated by our human conscience. For more information visit www.scientists4future.org