1. “Natural” Gas, so what?

Gas Free Pensions

Friday Evening. Work is done. I am going to have the weekend for myself, but it looks like I have to spend it inside, in front of my computer. I sigh. Now I really need a nice mug of tea! I put the kettle on the stove. And that is exactly were the trouble began…

It’s a gas stove, an antique one with ironwork ornaments. I strike a match and hold it to the nozzle, the blue flame plops into life. It’s natural gas. “Natural” meaning it’s being pumped out of the ground. So actually, it’s fossil gas. That’s what I am aware of now. Since my daughter Hannah goes on school strike on Fridays, she’s accumulated an amazing amount of knowledge about the climate problem. It’s hard to keep up. 

However, this morning  she pointed at the gas stove and shouted, “The sooner this thing gets out, the better.” My “yes, but” was drowned by a flood of notions and arguments. Then she stormed out with her cardboard sign and her megaphone to join her friends in the city center. She can be very determined. 

I love my daughter, but I also love my gas stove for Thai cooking and for my evening tea. And I certainly love heated discussions with my daughter and her friends. So I’d better be prepared: What’s up with the climate and natural gas? Isn’t it true that is more climate-friendly?

What I have learned in the meantime: When burned for energy, “natural” i.e. fossil gas releases fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Fossil – that’s where the trouble begins.

The climate problem in a nutshell

Once, there were huge deposits of fossil carbon underground, locked away from the living biosphere since millions of years. However, with industrialization, they were discovered as a cheap source of energy. So first coal, later oil, and then gas was dug or pumped from deep underground and burned. This added additional carbon to the living biosphere, hence carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The problem: carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere, it does not go away(1). It has built up over the years. Today, there are 1000 000 000 000 tons (1 trillion) more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there were around 1800, when industrialization began. Eventually, this leads to increasing global temperatures, weather chaos, burning forests and rising oceans, as we experience today(2) .

At some point, the atmosphere is “filled up”: There is so much additional carbon dioxide in the air, that harmful temperature increases cannot be avoided. This upper limit is “well below 2 degrees”, as the nations defined 2015 in Paris, and they agreed that striving for 1.5 degrees(3) is advisable.

The last decade, temperatures averaged at 1 degree above pre-industrial. 2019, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA measured 1.15 degrees Celsius(4). It’s obvious not much more additional carbon dioxide can be poured into the atmosphere. Today, every ton counts.

Is “natural” gas climate friendly?

Every now and then I see advertisements praising natural gas. They state that gas releases less carbon dioxide per energy unit than coal does, therefore gas being “more climate friendly”. But still: generating energy from gas releases carbon dioxide which is of fossil origin, hence additional. So burning natural gas makes the problem worse nonetheless, just more slowly, that’s the best you can say. So far I get it.

From there I reasoned: “Maybe my gas stove is still better than an electric stove as long as electricity comes from a coal power station”.

But wait a minute: Hannah had had another fact at the ready: Leakages. Methane. I checked that after she left this morning for the demonstration. What I found out, was new to me. It also confused me at the same time. No quick surfing on the net would do, I would need the weekend to get the complete picture. Better I started right this evening. I sighed.

There is yet another issue with “natural gas”: methane

Of course, the additional carbon dioxide was not the only greenhouse gas. There where others. Some where short living, some longer living. Most of them where more harmful, only their quantity in the air was so little. Only methane seemed to be a bit worrisome.

My gas supplier did not mention it on his website, but I checked on Wikipedia and learned quickly, that methane was indeed the main component of the “natural” gas coming out of my gas stove. Up to 98%, to be precise. Unfortunately, some of this gas escaped on the way to me: through leaks in pipelines, safety valves at extraction sites, or accidents. Hannah was right.

And only recently scientists confirmed the suspicion that the problem is a lot bigger then we thought until now.

And lately with methane, the picture gets really bad.


Sources

1Actually, the additional carbon dioxide accumulates in the whole living biosphere. A part dissolves in the oceans, building a kind of water-air-balance. A smaller part is bound through enhanced plant growth, building an extra carbon reservoir. However, this is released again when the plants decay or burn. Only little is permanently fixated, e.g. in swamps.
2First predictions date back more than 100 years ago, as described in a popular science article, see F. Molena (1912) Remarkable Weather of 1911 – The Effect of the Combustion of Coal on the Climate, in Popular Mechanics March 1912
3A growing number of political leaders is concerned that above critical temperature thresholds (“tipping points”), things get out of control because of chain reactions. Two Examples: 1. Reduced snow cover in the Arctic leads to less reflection of solar energy back into space, which leads to melting of arctic permafrost, which leads to extra carbon dioxide and methane emissions, which lead to more global heating. 2. Shifting climate zones lead to droughts in the Amazon basin, which lead to forest fires and eventually loss of the amazon rainforest, which leads to extra increase of carbon dioxide which leads to more global heating.
4The last decade, temperatures averaged at 1 degree above pre-industrial. 2019, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA measured 1.15 degrees Celsius.