By C40 Executive Director Mark Watts
At a meeting shortly before the beginning of COP27, 17 gas-exporting governments pledged to use the talks to promote fossil gas as the ‘perfect solution’ to the climate crisis. This move follows years of greenwashing from the fossil fuel industry attempting to promote the gas as ‘clean’ or a ‘bridge fuel’ in the green energy transition.
However, new research from C40 Cities shows that it is anything but: the use of fossil gas is incompatible with avoiding catastrophic global heating, is responsible for almost as many deaths in cities as coal-power plants, and its price has been soaring while the cost of renewable technologies gets cheaper. A rapid shift to renewables is the best opportunity to create the good, green jobs that are needed to employ a growing, young population in Global South cities in particular.
Fossil gas is not ‘green’ by any measure. Consisting largely of methane – an extremely potent greenhouse gas – any climate advantage of fossil gas over coal power is soon negated once emissions from leakages in the supply chain are accounted for. As a result, C40’s research finds that we need to reduce fossil gas usage by 30% by 2035 to remain on track for the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. Planned expansions are instead expected to add 86% to fossil gas capacity by 2035 in and around C40 cities, partly because of the lie about fossil gas being a ‘transition fuel’. This risks locking in emissions for the next few decades and pushing us well into the disaster zone of global heating.
Moreover, burning fossil gas directly pollutes the air we breathe, harming human health. C40 modelling shows that fossil gas use for electricity generation, heating in buildings, and industry contributed almost as much as coal power to premature deaths in C40 cities in 2020. Lower-income households in cities are at particular risk, as they are more likely to live in areas with higher concentrations of outdoor air pollutants. The burning of fossil gas also leads to significant economic costs in C40 cities – in an average year, the adverse health impacts result in 375 million days of absence from work, while costs from asthma-related emergency visits total around $3 million. A swift, clean energy transition away from gas could avoid over 215,000 premature deaths in C40 cities by 2035.
The report also shows that, as of 2022, solar and wind power are already cheaper than new fossil gas electricity generation in countries where all but one C40 city is located, which includes major fossil gas consumers such as the USA, the EU, the UK, China and Canada. Meanwhile, this year’s energy price crisis serves as a sharp reminder of the volatility of the international price of fossil gas and the risks to ordinary people of a reliance on fossil energy. Large-scale, rapid investment in renewables, alongside energy efficiency, battery storage and smart grids is our only option for cutting emissions and protecting people from energy poverty.
The world’s cities, which account for two-thirds of global primary energy use, are central to a swift, just transition away from fossil gas. Many of C40’s US cities – such as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City – have enacted bans on the use of fossil gas in new buildings. In fact, Los Angeles’ municipal utility company is phasing out three fossil gas plants as part of the city’s transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035. Several other cities are scaling up the use of renewables, such as Mexico City, which is installing 787,000m2 of solar panels in residential and commercial buildings by 2024, or Seoul, which has been deploying solar panels on low-income housing in order to achieve its target of installing more than 1 million individual systems on city rooftops by 2022.
Importantly in today’s economic context, large-scale investment in renewables creates more jobs. C40’s report finds that investing in residential building retrofits and solar power would generate six times as many jobs as similar investments in fossil gas. This finding fits with C40 research showing that, altogether, 50 million green jobs will be created if C40 cities deliver their fair share of halving emissions in line with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.
Finally, this investment would not require new money. As the UN Secretary-General has pointed out, the fossil fuel industry benefited from $5.9 trillion of public subsidies in 2020. That’s nearly $2 trillion more than the $4 trillion a year required to achieve the goal of 60% of the world’s electricity being renewable by 2030. Shifting from subsidising dirty energy to renewables would be a win for the climate, job creation and human health.
We have no more time to waste on the polluting technologies of yesterday. We must seize the opportunity to invest in better air, better health, and a better future for all.