Use of natural gas will decline if we are to achieve 1.5 C climate targets
A new review from Imperial has found that the use of natural gas will reduce by 35% by 2050 in order to meet climate targets.
The review, part of the latest white paper from Imperial College London's Sustainable Gas Institute, looks at potential natural gas use in Paris Agreement scenarios. It includes how natural gas use could look by 2050 based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Paris Agreement scenarios of limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel hydrocarbon comprised mainly of methane gas that can warm the climate when emitted and produces carbon dioxide when burned. Used as a source of energy for heating, cooking, transport fuel, electricity generation and hydrogen production, its extraction and consumption causes climate warming.
The new white paper, launched at an event on 13 October 2021, explores the best uses of natural gas, the evidence on where natural gas fits in 1.5°C energy scenarios, and what key options influence the low-carbon use of natural gas.
Lead author Dr. Jamie Speirs, of Imperial's Sustainable Gas Institute and Centre for Environmental Policy, said: "There are lots of moving parts to consider when thinking of natural gas in the context of IPCC targets, but we can use key milestones to guide us towards no more than 1.5°C warming."
The review considers the future mix of energy sources—from renewables, fossil fuels, and nuclear—and technologies to remove greenhouse gasses form the atmosphere, to map possible scenarios for the role of natural gas in reaching the goals of limiting warming to 2°C or 1.5°C by mid- and end-century.
The review found that the use of natural gas will probably decline worldwide in the future, with half of the IPCC's 1.5°C scenarios reducing use by at least 35 percent by 2050 and 70 percent by 2100 compared to 2019.
More stringent targets for limiting natural gas use, particularly before 2050, would have a significant impact on the ability to keep warming to the 1.5°C limit, say the researchers.
A key uncertainty is the extent of methane emissions in future. On one hand methane emissions are continuing to be discovered as monitoring technologies improve. On the other hand, efforts to reduce methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain are increasing. Tracking the progress of these issues will be important in the future in order to assess the appropriate role for natural gas.
One of the key measures policymakers can take now, say the researchers, is to support the development of CCS. If it can be sufficiently scaled up, then the impact of natural gas use on the climate can be significantly reduced.
According to the paper, scenarios that meet 1.5°C targets maintain a heavy reliance on CCS, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) deployment is typically more rapid under 1.5°C than 2°C scenarios. Twenty percent more BECCS will be required to meet 1.5°C than 2°C scenarios.
The researchers say that key enablers for the CCS industry include secure economic incentives and a steady regulatory environment. Meeting 2050 targets will be difficult if CCS development is slow.
Senior author Professor Adam Hawkes, of Director of the Sustainable Gas Institute and from Imperial's Department of Chemical Engineering, said that "governments need to address the large gap between current action on CCS and the requirement for it in the future if we are to achieve Paris targets. While there has been some successes and promising recent developments, CCS projects have so far been disparate with varying standards and incentives, causing too little certainty to underpin the investment needed.
"With high quality CCS and low methane emissions on the supply side, and sensible uses on the demand side, natural gas may have a future yet—but this is by no means certain and progress should be carefully monitored to ensure consistency with the Paris Agreement."
The report also suggests fostering international gas trade mechanisms for the developing hydrogen and CO2 markets, which could facilitate flexibility and cost reductions. It highlights considering key variables in the future role of natural gas like CCS capture rates or upstream methane emissions and encouraging the uptake of beneficial technologies to help reduce the emissions from natural gas.