The world’s new favourite fuel, natural gas, is sustaining our ever-growing demand for energy and manufacturing. The International Energy Agency said gas demand grew 4.6 percent last year, calling 2018 a “golden year” for natural gas.
Driven by booming US production, largely from fracking, and insatiable growth in China, natural gas accounted for 45 percent of the total increase in global primary energy consumption.
Industry paints gas as a “bridge fuel” between coal and oil and renewables, a lower-carbon alternative to coal in developing nations and a source of cheap energy in the global North. In its annual report on fossil fuels, the IEA said gas had helped alleviate air pollution and limit the growth in greenhouse gases.
But the gas boom is having a concomitant effect on emissions. Oil major BP this week said global greenhouse gas emissions rose 2 percent last year, largely on the increased energy demand catered for by gas. That’s roughly equivalent to increasing the number of cars on the planet by a third.
Gas is not low carbon, nor does its growing use keep us in line with the Paris climate goals of limiting global temperature rises. Yet industry is all in. A recent analysis by watchdog Global Witness found that energy majors planned $4.9 trillion investment in upstream oil and gas activities. There are currently 180,000 kilometres of gas pipeline under construction worldwide – a third of which is in the US. The European Investment Bank, the world’s largest multilateral lender has invested 14 billion euros in gas pipelines alone since 2013.
Gas extraction and use in agriculture also leaks methane – a greenhouse gas orders of magnitude more potent than CO2 – at far higher rates than industry regulators acknowledge.
The UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change says that for the Paris goals to be safely met, gas consumption must fall 25 percent by 2030 and three quarters by mid-century. But the gas infrastructure boom – with pipeline and terminal installations with decades-long shelf lives – is locking the global economy into using gas, either for power or manufacturing, for years.
While the climate needs all upstream gas activity to cease immediately, companies are mobilising gargantuan resources to keep the economy hooked on fossil fuels.
The majors are investing billions in cracking plants that turn natural gas into plastic, anticipating the booming demand for plastic products. In just one acquisition this year, behemoth Saudi Aramco bought petrochemical firm SABIC for $70 billion.
Gas consumption is also underwritten by governments by trillions worth of subsidies, tax breaks and fixed-price tariffs; the IMF said fossil fuel subsidies stood at $5.2 trillion in 2017.