Which Gas Will Europe Import Now? The Choice Matters to the Climate
Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has brought instability, violence, and human tragedy on a massive scale, with effects rippling across the continent and globally.
The crisis has also shaken up the energy sector. One-fourth of Europe’s energy comes from natural gas, nearly 45 percent of which is imported from Russia. RMI is committed to analyzing the consequences for the energy transition and the climate, so that future energy choices don’t jeopardize another nation’s sovereignty, security and stability.
As European nations take swift action to de-risk their gas supply and ramp up new energy sources due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which alternatives they choose will have significant climate implications.
A quarter of European Union (EU) energy comes from natural gas, of which nearly 45 percent is sourced from Russia. While renewable energy generation is the ultimate goal, a new RMI analysis shows that gas imports into Europe have very different climate intensities depending on where they come from and how they are transported, with emissions from gas production and transport varying by a factor of two to three. As we’ll explore in depth in a forthcoming article, these supply chain emissions can account for a significant portion of the total life-cycle emissions from gas.
Turning off the Taps
The EU is accelerating its shift to alternative energy sources such as renewables to supplant its large natural gas appetite. For example, Germany froze the Nord Stream 2 project — a 1,200 kilometer gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — in response to the Ukrainian invasion. Germany also announced plans to rapidly build out terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) to expand its gas trade with other nations. And international oil companies including BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil are making plans to divest their holdings in Russia.
Natural gas has long been positioned as a “bridge” to transition the world away from coal. Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, underscores that gas is not a stable bridge. Geopolitics aside, the United Nations warns that methane (the main component of natural gas) is a dangerous driver of climate change, causing premature deaths and perpetuating crop losses.
Zeroing in on Europe’s Gas Supplies
Beyond pipeline gas from Russia, the EU currently imports one-half of its LNG from the United States (26 percent) and Qatar (24 percent). Moves are afoot to replace Russia’s pipeline gas with US and Qatari LNG. This begs the question: what impacts will these shifts in gas supplies have on the climate?
To quantify the climate risks associated with replacing Russian gas supplies into Germany and the rest of Europe, we used the open-source Oil Climate Index plus Gas (OCI+) model. The OCI+ assesses the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensities of individual global oil and gas resources — from upstream extraction and processing, midstream refining, and downstream shipping and end-use consumption. The results highlight that oil and gas have wide-ranging GHG profiles.
These differences are borne out, for example, when comparing the emissions intensity of the Russian, US, and Qatari gas supplied to Düsseldorf, Germany (Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1. Assessed Natural Gas Supplies to Düsseldorf, Germany
Note: US select sites are modeled assuming gas supplied from East Texas and Arkoma basins; Russian gas is assumed from Astrakhanskoye, Pestsovoye, Russkoye South, and Yurkharovskoye fields; Qatar gas is assumed from Qatargas 2. Source: RMI, Oil Climate Index plus Gas Model (OCI+), 2022
Depending on the gas supplier, emissions vary widely. Russian gas to Germany has a climate footprint that is two to three times larger than US and Qatari gas (Exhibit 2). A further breakdown of emissions finds that transporting gas through Russian pipelines is three times more climate intensive than shipping it from the United States. While LNG shipping accounts for 20 to 30 percent of transport emissions, pipeline transport dominates total shipping emissions.
Note: Düsseldorf, Germany, was selected as a proxy destination for EU imports of Russian pipeline gas. This analysis can be modified for other EU destinations, with similar results. The OCI+ model used inputs from GlobalData for oil and gas production volumes and API gravity for the modeled Russian and Qatari fields. Source: RMI, Oil Climate Index plus Gas Model (OCI+), 2022
Methane is the Main Problem
Oil and gas systems often leak methane (especially in Russia), which drives global warming 85 times more powerfully than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. In the Düsseldorf case, methane accounts for 60 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions for Russian gas and 50 percent for US gas (Exhibit 2).
Russia’s pipelines are both longer (on an individual basis) and leakier than the infrastructure in the United States and Qatar. Gas travels 4,824 kilometers in pipelines from Russia to Düsseldorf, five times longer than in the US route (963 km) and 16 times farther than gas from Qatar (298 km). And the International Energy Agency estimates a total of 1.7 million metric tons (Mt) of methane was emitted from Russian pipelines and LNG facilities in 2021, while US gas infrastructure emitted 2.6 Mt. Considering that US transmission pipeline infrastructure is three times as long in total as Russia’s pipelines (516,600 km versus 176,800 km), this suggests that one kilometer of typical transmission pipeline in Russia is twice as leaky as the same length of US pipeline.
In 2021, Bloomberg reported several major methane leakage incidents along a Russian gas pipeline observed through satellite measurements. And a recent Science article found that “ultra-emitters” (measuring 10–150 tons of methane per hour) are responsible for 10 percent of all global emissions from oil and gas. Russia trumped all others with ultra-emitters that spew 1.5 megatons of methane per year, mostly from leaky Russia-to-Europe pipelines. Carbon Mapper, RMI’s collaborator, is due to launch a pair of methane satellites in 2023 that will further explore the extent of Russia’s methane leakage.
Reducing Life-Cycle Emissions
Gas operations that leak even small amounts of planet-warming methane can be even more detrimental to the climate than coal. As countries take action to reduce methane emissions under the Global Methane Pledge, it is critical that policymakers have access to life-cycle emissions and understand who’s responsible.
In assigning responsibility, the new OCI+ web tool (slated for launch in April) offers open-source life-cycle climate intensity estimates for 600 global oil and gas resources — two-thirds of current production. By differentiating oil and gas emissions intensities, the OCI+ provides new knowledge that can empower the EU and other countries to reduce their climate footprints. Sourcing less emissions-intensive gas buys time in the short term as the world transforms the global energy system to secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all.