With Ontario on the cusp of locking in its reliance on natural gas infrastructure, The Atmospheric Fund says emissions of climate-busting methane due to the province’s existing gas consumption are nearly double the amounts reported in Canada’s latest emissions inventory report.
“Combustion of natural gas makes up 45% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), but that only includes what is emitted onsite during its use—such as for heating, cooking, and a small amount for electricity generation,” TAF writes in an online summary of the report. “Almost none of the methane leakage that happens during extraction and transmission is counted in our inventories or any other reporting.”
TAF saw the need to recalculate those numbers given widespread concern that the fossil industry is undercounting its methane emissions. “While it was widely understood that fugitive emissions are a significant problem, it is now clear that leakage is likely more than double reported rates, and a larger driver of climate change than previously thought.”
The other factor is that methane’s global warming potential is typically calculated across a 100-year period when it’s listed in the National Inventory Reports that countries including Canada file with the United Nations each year. But a 20-year time span is more relevant in the fight to bring emissions to net-zero, and over that time, methane is about 84 times more potent an atmospheric warming agent than carbon dioxide.
Research released in April showed atmospheric methane at its highest level since scientists began collecting data 39 years ago, at 1,895.7 parts per billion. Preliminary analysis from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also pointed to a record annual increase of 17 parts per billion between 2020 and 2021.
Those number are important as Ontario copes with a looming electricity shortage, brought on in large part by the Ford government’s decision to cancel a large wind farm and 758 other renewable energy projects after it took power in 2018.
“Natural gas’s share of electricity generation in Ontario is about to quadruple, partly because of nuclear reactors soon coming offline for refurbishment or retirement, and partly to fulfill rising electricity demand,” the TAF report states [pdf]. “And just as these gas plants are ramping up, we are also increasing the amount of fracked gas imported from the United States, which emits more fugitive methane than domestic gas from Western Canada (though fugitive methane is underreported there too).”
With those life cycle emissions factored in, “there is little difference between the climate impacts of natural gas and coal in the short term, debunking the myth of natural gas as a ‘clean bridge fuel’ in the broader energy transition away from fossil fuels,” the report adds.
With the province moving now to get more gas-fired power plants online, “Ontario is approaching a series of inflection points that threaten to further lock in natural gas infrastructure, many of which have viable low-carbon alternatives,” writes TAF Director of Research and Innovation Aakash Harpalani. “The electrification of our building and transportation sectors, through the rapid adoption of technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps, is essential to meeting our climate targets,” but “those efforts will be undermined if we don’t also decarbonize our grid in parallel.”
The Toronto-based fund calls for a “robust and ambitious” national Clean Electricity Standard, built in part on the “rapidly decreasing costs of renewables and storage”.