In the years since the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany was permitted, evidence continues to mount that fossil gas does not provide a clean bridge to renewables. Projected to emit over 100 million metric tons of CO2 per year – plus fugitive methane, German regulators refuse to investigate the climate impacts of Europe’s largest fossil fuel project. Nor have they agreed to hold hearings on this emerging data ahead of September’s federal elections. But the EU’s adoption of emissions reduction targets of 55% by 2030 on the way to mid-century carbon neutrality means NS2 will clearly breach these limits. In the third installment in an on-going series, Lead Blogger L. Michael Buchsbaum interviews one of the world’s leading authorities on methane, Dr. Robert Howarth, whose data suggests the pipeline’s impacts could be worse than the coal it’s replacing.
In an attempt to reduce emissions and slow the rate of global warming, starting in the early 2000s the EU and other nations began looking at ways to switch from burning coal to fossil gas which supposedly emits only half as much CO2.
Today as the EU aims to decarbonize its economy and achieve net neutrality by mid-century, both coal and gas need to be drastically reduced, with the former disappearing altogether and gas constituting a fraction of today’s usage.
Since 2000, our understanding of methane’s role in the climate crisis has changed significantly. In an exchange with the eminent Cornell University scientist Dr. Robert Howarth, who has spent much of his career evaluating the effects of methane, fossil gas and fracking on the environment and in the atmosphere, he weighed in on the harm an operating Nord Stream 2 might bring.
While accepting NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH)’s estimates of NS2 emissions at 100 million tons of CO2 annually, Howarth fears the methane it will leak will make the pipeline’s impacts even worse.
“It is not possible to develop, process, and transport natural gas without emitting some unburned methane to the atmosphere,” he shared with Energytransition.org. “In the US, there has been a lot of research to better characterize exactly how much: my best interpretation of these studies is that somewhere in the range of 3.5% to 4% of natural gas production is emitted in the US,” he said.
Fugitive methane would “add another 113 to 130 g CO2-equivalents of warming to NS2’ gas” given that over a 20-year period, methane is 86-times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. When combined, Howarth estimates NS2’s “total emissions will be between 213 to 230 g in CO2-equivalents.”
Far from a clean bridge, due to the increased production and consumption of fossil gas “methane emissions have been rising rapidly over the past decade,” he continued. In turn, these methane releases have “been responsible for about 25% of the total rate of global warming over recent decades, according to the IPCC.”
In a mid-April calculation, the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin found that if Germany sticks to it’s current fossil gas infrastructure plans including NS2, it will violate its Paris Agreement obligations.
Not only does DIW find fossil gas should not be considered a “bridging technology” to climate neutrality, but their senior energy expert, Prof. Claudia Kemfert, told news outlet Deutsche Welle that Nord Stream 2 is both “unnecessary” in respect to German energy policy (in particular security of supply concerns), as well as “environmentally destructive.”
In early May, the United Nations Environmental Programme issued a new report stating it is urgent to reduce methane emissions now if we are to reach the COP21 targets agreed upon in Paris over five years ago. “The assessment highlights the critical role that cutting methane emissions, including from the fossil fuel industry, plays in slowing the rates of global warming. Cutting human-caused methane by 45% this decade would keep warming beneath a threshold agreed by world leaders,” the report notes.
Even the head of the European Investment Bank recently emphasized that the gas age is over.
The pipeline, as DUH remarks, is a “relic from a fossil fuel past.”
As nations worldwide announce ambitious new targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in written responses to questions from Reuters, Ruslan Edelgeriyev, Russia’s climate envoy deemed the trend an “unreasonable race.”
Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fossil gas and number two exporter of oil. Though it joined the Paris climate change pact in 2019, it’s self-imposed target, reiterated last year by President Vladimir Putin, is for its 2030 emissions to be 30% lower than in 1990. However the nation has long been on course to exceed this goal given the massive de-industrialization following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Disregarding both new evidence and emerging concerns, Edelgeriyev strongly disagrees with the growing environmental opposition to NS2, which would double Russia’s gas export capacity. He counters that the pipeline would help the environment because “generating power from natural gas emits less carbon than coal.”
Of course, Edelgeriyev’s stance does not include data regarding methane emissions, which Russia does not release.
What data does exist, however, is rather worrying. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in collaboration with the Climate Accountability found that Gazprom’s greenhouse gas emissions totaled 35,221 billion tons from 1988 to 2015, making it the second largest producer on the planet.
Nor does it seem that Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned monopoly, is just an aberration within their oil and gas sector. According to the Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) program at the World Bank, for years Russia has remained a champion of wasteful and harmful flaring from oil and gas activity mainly – far bigger than any other comparable country.
Eyes in the Sky
Though outside the US, there has been less research on methane emissions, new satellite observations are helping increase our understanding about what’s happening worldwide.
Until recently, the debate surrounding methane emissions during gas transport has focused on defective installations and devices resulting in small “fugitive” or unintended emissions. Thanks to powerful technologies, such as high-resolution satellite data, scientists at Kayrros are now able to underline the impact of frequent and intentional methane releases, also known as ‘venting.’
In 2020, the European technology start-up successfully developed a tool to accurately detect individual methane emissions from space. By combining data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P and Sentinel-2 missions, along with artificial intelligence algorithms, the platform is now being used to track regular methane emissions along gas pipelines in Siberia.
In reviewing the data, Kayrros scientists detected 46 separate methane emission events in 2019-2020 along the Yamal-Europe and Brotherhood pipelines that run across Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany.
Remarkably, the number of emission events detected by Kayrros in 2020 increased by 40% even though the COVID-19 pandemic helped cut Russian gas exports to Europe by an estimated 14%, according to the IEA.
Given emerging data, Howarth emphatically states that increasing gas imports to Europe not only “moves the planet in the wrong direction,” but depending on NS2 will be “worse than burning coal.”