From the Editor: On the path to “Not Zero” [Gas In Transition]
Covid-19. Europe’s winter of energy discontent. Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for European, if not global, hegemony. Failings of COP26. Focus on emissions within borders despite carbon’s refusal to recognise borders. Increased reliance on coal as gas prices soar.
These are but a few of the issues on the climate change front that have coalesced over the last eight months into a spreading realisation that the global ambition to keep global warming to the 1.5°C target set out in the Paris Agreement is destined to fail miserably. Net Zero by 2050 is being replaced by Not Zero – Perhaps Ever.
Much of the problem lies with virtue-signaling on a massive scale by global leaders more intent on showing how their own economies will cut emissions than devising ways to cut global – not national – emissions. Carbon emissions know no borders, and methane emission reductions of 75% in places like Canada mean nothing when leaky Russian coal mines can offset those efforts in a matter of days or weeks.
At the same time, all those nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, ostensibly setting out cumulative global ambitions to reduce emissions from the production and use of fossil fuels, mean nothing when natural carbon sinks – soils, rain forests, the world’s oceans – are increasingly unable to do the work they have done for millennia. Again, planting two billion trees in Canada means nothing when great swaths of Amazon rain forests are being levelled; working to end energy poverty in Africa or India by providing easier access to natural gas counts little when efforts continue to turn millions of acres of carbon-capturing forests into productive agricultural land to feed a global population heading inexorably to 10 billion souls by 2050.
NDCs are increasingly being used as a bully pulpit on which developed economies – usually in the months and weeks preceding yet another in the endless march of COP gatherings – can show the world they are “serious” about climate change. Boosting NDC commitments are usually accompanied by yet another round of unrealistic measures aimed at reducing emissions. In Canada, that means federal promises to cap emissions from oil and gas production, even though that implies a cap on production – a clear trespass by Ottawa into matters of provincial jurisdiction.
And as Europe faces another winter of energy shortages, and the US grapples with gasoline prices that are at record highs, politicians who once espoused a green future have reversed course.
Under Boris Johnson’s administration, the UK had shut down significant gas storage capacity and turned its back on potential shale gas resources; now it is advancing renewed oil and gas production from the North Sea as a means of enhancing UK energy security.
In the US, president Joe Biden is turning to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for more oil to keep pump prices down, just months after throwing Keystone XL – which would have provided the US with nearly a million b/d of responsibly produced Canadian crude oil – under the climate change bus.
And in the EU, where just a few months ago parliamentarians were debating whether natural gas should really be considered green, lawmakers have advanced €300bn of emergency funding to support ending reliance on Russian energy. While some of that will go to renewables, more will be allocated to increasing the ability of EU member states to access alternative sources of natural gas, largely LNG from the US, Australia, the Middle East and elsewhere.
In the meantime, corporate leaders are doing what they can to limit emissions from fossil fuel production and consumption. Technologies to improve carbon capture and storage – and thus sustain natural gas as a key component of the energy transition – are advancing steadily; hydrogen, in all its rainbow of colours, is emerging as a key fuel for hard-to-abate sectors like transportation and energy-intensive industries like steel and cement; carbon-neutral LNG is quickly becoming a thing as many economies – especially in Southeast Asia – ramp up their natural gas consumption as a way to decarbonise.
These, and many other initiatives and technologies – some of which are only just beginning to emerge but are nowhere close to commercialisation – suggest the world will eventually be able to reduce carbon emissions, but there are growing doubts that we will ever be able to eliminate them entirely.
The energy industry has always known this; policy-makers now need to accept the fact that Net Zero by 2050 is an illusion and start working with stakeholders to mitigate – not eliminate – the impact of carbon emissions.