UN climate panel backs natural gas as a ‘bridge technology’

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Last month’s report on climate change mitigation strategies from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contains several crucial messages for the gas industry and its likely future over the medium and long term – some positive and some that should be ringing alarm bells. In particular, a clear message is that natural gas only has a promising long-term future as a power generation fuel in a carbon-constrained world if carbon capture and storage (CCS) proves to be feasible.

Welcome message: A message the industry will welcome – given that it has itself been trying to get the same message across to policy-makers for years – is that gas has a major role in reducing greenhouse gas (GSG) emissions by displacing coal in electricity generation. It is not, of course, a new idea, but the backing of a large body of the world’s scientific community makes the message sound much less self-serving.

In its Summary for Policy-makers, the IPCC says: “GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced significantly by replacing current world average coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants or combined heat and power plants, provided that natural gas is available and the fugitive emissions associated with extraction and supply are low or mitigated.

“In mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide equivalent concentrations by 2100 [those in which global warming is likely to stay within 2°C of pre-industrial levels], natural gas power generation without CCS acts as a bridge technology, with deployment increasing before peaking and falling to below current levels by 2050 and declining further in the second half of the century.”

More confident about harsh realities: On a more general level, the three reports published so far as part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) are much more confident about some harsh realities than when the fourth assessment was published seven years ago:

  • Firstly, that the climate is changing.
  • Secondly, that anthropogenic GHG emissions (emissions caused by human activities) are largely the cause.
  • And thirdly, that GHG emissions “have risen to unprecedented levels despite a growing number of policies to reduce climate change”. According to the IPCC, total anthropogenic GHG emissions were the highest in human history in the decade from 2000 to 2010, despite a temporary reduction during the global economic crisis that began in 2007/08. Around half of the cumulative anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred in the last 40 years.

When it comes to responsibilities for those emissions, the IPCC leaves the energy industry with nowhere to hide:

“Energy supply sector emissions are expected to continue to be the major source of GHG emissions, ultimately accounting for the significant increases in indirect emissions from electricity use in the buildings and industry sectors.”

It goes on to say that mitigation scenarios in which GHG concentrations reach around 450 ppm by 2100 “show large-scale global changes in the energy supply sector (robust evidence, high agreement)”.

“In these selected scenarios, global carbon dioxide emissions from the energy supply sector are projected to decline over the next decades and are characterised by reductions of 90% or more below 2010 levels between 2040 and 2070. Emissions in many of these scenarios are projected to decline to below zero thereafter . . .

“In the majority of low-stabilisation scenarios, the share of low-carbon electricity supply (comprising renewable energy, nuclear and CCS) increases from the current share of approximately 30% to more than 80 % by 2050, and fossil fuel power generation without CCS is phased out almost entirely by 2100.”

What’s in store for CCS? On the prospects for the development of CCS, the IPCC notes that it has yet to be applied at scale to a large, operational fossil fuel plant anywhere in the world.  However, it adds that all the components needed for integrated CCS systems already exist and “are in use today by the fossil fuel extraction and refining industry”.

The IPCC cautions that there are several barriers to the large-scale deployment of CCS technologies, especially when it comes to economic viability and concerns about the operational safety and long-term integrity of carbon dioxide storage.

“CCS power plants could be seen in the market if this is incentivised by regulation and/or if they become competitive with their unabated counterparts.” For this to happen, the IPCC adds, “the additional investment and operational costs, caused in part by efficiency reductions, would need to be compensated by sufficiently high carbon prices or direct financial support”.

By Alex Forbes