The Carbon-Neutral LNG Market: Creating a Framework for Real Emissions Reductions
Natural gas is viewed by some as potentially providing a bridge in a broad energy transition from dependence on fossil fuels to lower-emission sources. Even with advancements in renewable energy, many forecasts show natural gas will remain core to meeting global energy demand for some time, including as a backup fuel source for renewables. But as the emissions profile of the natural gas value chain has become clearer, estimates of its footprint have increased, raising questions about natural gas’s transitory function. While gas will continue to have a prominent role in the energy mix, without action to better account for, reduce, and offset natural gas and LNG emissions, the breadth and length of its use will increasingly come into question—including by countries with growing energy demand who see diminishing incentive to favor natural gas over high-emitting but fiscally cheap fuel sources, such as coal.
Amid these considerations, discussions of value chain carbon intensity and greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting are becoming an important component of LNG trade, giving rise to the concept of “carbon-neutral LNG.” In the trade of carbon-neutral LNG, GHG emissions from supply and/or consumption are accounted for and offset by procuring and retiring carbon credits generated through GHG abatement projects, such as afforestation, farm/soil management, and methane collection. Currently, carbon-neutral LNG makes up a slim portion of global LNG trade, with just 14 cargoes traded transparently since the first was sold in 2019, compared to over 5,000 cargoes of LNG being delivered globally in 2020 alone. By examining the efficacy of the market at this early stage, as this commentary does, areas for improvement in the carbon-neutral LNG trade are highlighted.
Procurement of carbon credits does not negate the emissions from natural gas and LNG, and accordingly, adoption of offsets should be paired with a broader and deeper reduction in the emissions intensity of these fossil fuels to ensure they remain conducive to meeting growing energy demand without needlessly jeopardizing global, national, and corporate efforts to reduce emissions. When considering this alongside the important role LNG and natural gas are likely to continue to play in meeting energy demand in key parts of the world during the transition period, it becomes clear that efforts must be made to scale GHG emissions mitigation throughout the value chain, such as through leakage reduction and employment of less carbon-intensive liquefaction technology, as well as to offset remaining emissions through the procurement and retirement of high-quality carbon credits.
Serious questions remain about scaling the carbon-neutral LNG trade, including which emissions are accounted for, what methodology is employed in the emissions measurement and verification, and how the emissions are priced—either through a carbon credit or a carbon tax. If these questions are sufficiently addressed, natural gas and LNG may align better with global policy direction and emissions requirements. That is to say, GHG verification and mitigation will be critical to the sustainability of LNG in the decarbonizing global energy stack in the coming decade, with knock-on impacts on long-term LNG contract structure, trade flows, and market pricing.
While this commentary does not prescribe policy to meet carbon neutrality or Paris Agreement goals specifically, it does examine an existing and growing market trade behavior that has the potential to assist countries dependent on natural gas in meeting their climate targets during this transitory period for the global energy system. Section 1 outlines the current state of the carbon-neutral LNG trade, while section 2 suggests a structure for LNG GHG accounting based on existing accounting methodologies. Section 3 discusses the different forms through which emissions mitigation can be integrated into the LNG trade, including a discussion on the risks of greenwashing. Section 4 highlights the implications of the growing carbon-neutral LNG market and provides recommendations to market participants and policy makers.
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