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Declining demand for fossil fuels won’t solve our methane crisis

This week has seen the launch of a landmark report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that details how the world can transition to a net-zero energy system by 2050. It has generated a lot of headlines, mostly focused on the massive and rapid phase-out of coal, gas and oil for energy production.

A lot of this decline comes from drops in demand for fossil fuels. As Carbon Brief put it in its coverage of the report:

“The precipitous decline of fossil fuel demand means that the NZE requires no new extraction of coal, oil or natural gas beyond 2021 … The IEA says that oil demand never returns to its 2019 peak and declines by nearly 75% from 2020 to 2050. This means continued investment in existing oil fields is sufficient to meet demand.”

While this is excellent reading for veteran climate campaigners like me, I do want to raise a note of caution when it comes to methane emissions. 

Methane has a greenhouse effect that is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and is responsible for at least 25% of global heating. Even worse, methane emissions have been rising much faster than anticipated by the team behind the Paris Agreement targets. Even last year, in the midst of a pandemic, methane emissions surged to record levels.

Moving to zero-carbon energy sources on a global scale is one of the biggest ways we can move the needle on climate, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to clean up oil, gas and coal in the short term. 

The vast majority of IEA’s projected methane emissions reductions will come from decisions made by policymakers, not a drop in global demand for fossil fuels. 

The IEA includes a 75% cut in methane emissions in its Net Zero report, which would require the elimination of ‘all technically avoidable methane emissions from fossil fuel infrastructure by 2030’. This is some of the lowest hanging fruit in climate policy – inspecting infrastructure, fixing leaks, setting proper rules and enforcing regulation. 

Most of the work involved in cleaning up methane emissions in the oil and gas sector isn’t rocket science, it’s simple maintenance and plumbing. The problem is the lack of regulation and enforcement of regulation.

The Global Methane Assessment, a landmark study on methane abatement recently released by the UN, spelled this out. It called for a 40% reduction in global methane emissions by 2030, which includes a 65% reduction in coal, oil and gas methane, resulting 0.3C of warming avoided. Even better, 60% of the reduction measures would have low or negative costs. The reason the oil and gas sector hasn’t implemented these measures is simple: they don’t have to.

Policymakers need to change that. Smart regulation in the EU alone could reduce more than 5 million tons of methane annually. That’s the equivalent near-term climate impact as replacing 120 coal-fired power plants with renewables and, crucially, it can be implemented in the next five years. This is the sort of step change in climate measures that are needed to accelerate the transition to a net-zero world.

In the IEA report, the timeline is aggressive. Renewable energy generation will need to overtake coal by 2026 and oil and gas before 2030. That means no new fossil fuel projects from this year onwards, as well as doubling the share of electricity production coming from renewables by 2030. By 2050, the IEA lays out a scenario in which demand for coal declines by 90%, oil by 75% and gas by 55% compared to current levels. This is a seismic shift that would relegate energy from fossil fuels to bits and pieces of the 2050 energy system, only useful in the areas where other options aren’t available and typically paired with carbon capture and storage technology to further limit emissions.

It’s an incredibly encouraging vision that challenges policymakers to act with far more ambition.

In the past six months, we’ve already seen considerable scaling of climate pledges from key players like the US, UK, Japan, China and the European Union. But, according to researchers at the Climate Action Tracker, all those new pledges put us on track for 2.4C of warming – better than the 2.9C rise from national policies that have already been adopted, but still far from the 1.5C target the IEA has modelled around.

What is clear from the IEA report is that global climate ambition still needs to ramp up considerably, with an emphasis put on climate measures that will have impacts sooner rather than later. Not only will it help the planet, but it will also help the climate movement maintain momentum – at some point, we need a win. Cutting methane emissions should be that win.

There is a danger that the European Commission and other governments look at the IEA’s report and feel like the demand drops for fossil fuels will solve their methane problem. It won’t. 

A strong policy is needed in the next 12 months so we don’t allow a declining fossil fuel industry to continue to emit super-pollutants like methane. 

Methane is the on-ramp to hitting the 1.5C target, and if we don’t immediately start cutting methane emissions we have no chance of meeting our climate goals. We cannot afford 10 or 20 more years of unabated methane emissions waiting for fossil fuel demand to drop.

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