In the dispute over the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline, climate protection is a popular argument. But gas is anything but a climate saver.
Construction was still underway – Nord Stream 2 has just been stopped Photo: Anton Vaganov/reutersF
For the operating company Nord Stream 2, everything is clear: Its pipeline "makes a cost-effective contribution to achieving the European Union’s climate protection goals," it says in an official brochure. Gas releases only half as much CO2 as coal in power generation. If transport and extraction are included, "the CO2 savings turn out to be even higher."
The lobby group VNG also demands: "Step on the gas for climate protection". And the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology says that natural gas could be "an important intermediate step on the road to decarbonization" in supplying buildings, transport and industry.
It sounds like a possible failure of the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline from Vyborg in Russia to Lubmin in Germany would be a setback for climate protection. The 9.5-billion-euro project has been on hold since the U.S. threatened the builders and German port authorities with economic sanctions.
And after the poison attack on Russian opposition politician Alexei Nawalny, support in the German government for the gas pipe, which is being pushed by Russian state-owned Gazprom, is wobbling: EU sanctions could sink the megaproject, which has only 150 kilometers of pipe left to go.
This is what environmental and climate activists are secretly hoping for, who, after coal, are now singling out gas supply as the next climate killer. Just last Monday, demonstrators in Hanover stuck themselves to the state chancellery – in protest against plans for gas terminals on the North Sea.
For the end of September, the environmental group Ende Gelande announces blockade actions against "critical gas infrastructure in North Rhine-Westphalia" because here a "fossil fuel is given a green coat of paint," as a spokeswoman explains. Climate politicians from the Left and the Greens have long criticized Nord Stream 2. And the German Environmental Aid (DUH) is suing Nord Stream 2 because "the pipeline does not fit in with the EU’s climate protection goals."
Because the supposedly so green vest of the cleanest fossil fuel has black spots. Depending on the calculation method, the use of natural gas pollutes the climate significantly more than previously assumed. And new studies show that the danger from pipeline leaks has been massively underestimated up to now.
Natural gas consists of methane, a greenhouse gas that heats up the atmosphere about 80 times more than carbon dioxide in the short term because of its short lifetime. Over a hundred years, the influence is about 25 times as strong. One third of the total global warming to date is due to the volatile gas. Its concentration in the atmosphere – mainly from natural sources, rice fields, cattle stomachs, and the oil and gas industry – has increased rapidly in recent years. Exactly why is a mystery to many researchers. The only thing that is clear is that, according to calculations by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane levels would have to fall by 35 percent by 2050 in order to meet climate targets.
Every additional molecule that is released into the air is a nuisance. In the meantime, many studies show that the danger of methane as a climate killer is underestimated: In 2018, researchers found after precise measurements that methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas industry were 60 percent higher than calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Recent satellite data from Texas showed that fracking fields there were losing methane at 3.7 percent of their production, twice as much as previously thought. A recent study found methane leaks in U.S. gas distribution networks that were "five times as high as the EPA assumes," the experts write.
Yet climate protection would come cheap here. The industry could "save half of these emissions without higher costs," says the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol – after all, the gas that currently escapes through leaks could then be sold. In the long run, he says, that would be as good for the climate as "ridding half of all the cars currently on the road worldwide of exhaust fumes."
The issue is particularly virulent in the U.S. The years-long fracking boom has flooded the market with cheap gas, displacing coal and thus reducing CO2 emissions by 14 percent since 2005. At the same time, the Trump administration has loosened regulations on the gas industry. Since the fracking industry went into decline in the spring, thousands of wells have been abandoned, many probably not properly secured against methane outgassing.
One of the largest U.S. environmental organizations, EDF, is fighting the methane disaster with new measurement methods and its own satellite, among other things: Starting in 2022, "MethaneSAT" will sniff around the world for the climate killer from space.
Then there will also be more clarity about emissions in Russia. Upon request, the Nord Stream company refers to data from Gazprom. According to this, transport through the Baltic Sea reduces CO2 emissions by 43 percent compared to delivery through Ukraine and by 37 percent compared to the pipeline through Belarus – because the gas from the north flows through the pipeline at higher natural pressure.
There is no information on methane losses, and certainly no independent measurements. Even a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for the Federal Environment Agency last year, which attested that Russian gas had less climate impact than coal (but about as much as oil), had to settle for official average data.
Competition for renewables
It has long been clear among experts that gas is no climate savior. As early as 2014, researchers investigated the consequences of a global expansion of cheap fracked gas. The result: gas would displace CO2-intensive coal, but also put CO2-free alternatives such as nuclear power and renewables in distress and encourage waste through low prices. In the best-case scenario, the researchers say, there would be a CO2 saving of 2 percent – but much more likely there would be more CO2 emissions: by up to 11 percent.
Earlier, researchers had feared that over a hundred years, fracking would be as damaging to the climate as coal use. And the eco think tank Global Energy Monitor wrote that the planned $500 billion expansion of the global infrastructure for liquefied natural gas poses a threat to the climate "as great as coal expansion."
In any case, there is no room for fossil fuels in the "climate neutrality" to which the EU and Germany are committed in the medium term. Back in 2013, it was calculated that only about half of all known gas reserves can be burned if the climate targets are to be met – the rest must remain in the ground as "unburnable carbon," as the landmark study was called.
However, there might still be a use for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in a climate protection scenario in about a decade’s time: as a transport route for hydrogen, which industry in Europe will urgently need. For this, it would have to be produced in Russia using renewable energies. So far, however, Gazprom has no plans for this.