The impacts of climate change in Mozambique

Climate change impacts in Mozambique, like much of the global south, are very clear and irreversibly devastating. The fossil fuel industry and northern governments in which most of these companies are registered, and who get major revenues from the industry, often call climate change a ‘global phenomenon’, allowing them to claim that no matter where and how much carbon or methane is being emitted, it goes into one big cloud of emissions that impacts the entire world equally. So, for example, when they are confronted with the fact that in Mozambique, where the construction of one LNG train for the Mozambique LNG project will increase the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the whole country by up to 10% within 2 years, they say that will not affect Mozambique directly. This is simply not true.

As another comparison, this project’s greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to 7 years of emissions of the whole country of France.

In 2019, Cyclone Idai and Cyclone Kenneth killed at least 1400 people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, and many died of cholera and other illnesses. The direct and indirect economic damages from these cyclones were close to US$ 3 billion. To put this into perspective, Mozambique is projected to gain less than US$ 20 billion total, mostly after 2035. When adjusted to inflation, that amounts to just over US$ 4 billion today. So one bad cyclone season around 2035 has the potential to wipe out 70% of the project’s revenues for the country. Cyclone Eloise in 2021 destroyed 8000 homes and affected over 450000 Mozambicans.

Methane emissions from the Mozambique gas industry will result in irreversible climate change. The fossil fuel industry, financiers and gas-purchasing countries refer to gas as a ‘transition fuel’ or ‘clean energy’, because it emits very little carbon dioxide. However, it emits massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is 100 times as potent as CO2 over a 10 year period.

The Mozambique gas projects have the potential to result in a huge release of GHG emissions, especially methane, not just over the next few years, but for decades to come.

The 2014 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Mozambique LNG Project expects that this project will have an LNG capacity of 2.5 to 3 million tons per year for at least 25 years. The amount of money that will be invested in this project will mean that this infrastructure will stay in place for decades. Not only will this shift government investment from renewables to natural gas, but it will also disincentive future renewable opportunities. In a country that is largely rural and has significant solar resources, this is a major lost opportunity to increase electricity access to clean and sustainable forms of electricity that will not contribute to climate change.

The EIA says:

“Assuming Mozambique’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions will increase by 8 percent per year (based on World Bank GDP predicted growth figures), emissions from the Project will increase the country’s global contribution of GHG emissions from between 0.4 percent per year up to 10 percent per year, depending on the year and period of development (ie construction or operation).”

“The pre-mitigation impact of the Project on Mozambique’s national GHG emissions is likely be of MAJOR significance both during the construction and operational phases of the Project. Given the scale and nature of the Project, while good practice can be employed to reduce the GHG emissions, the overall significance of the impact is not expected to significantly change post-mitigation.”

“It is evident that by 2022, the first year of full operations of the LNG Facility, GHG emissions from the Project could account for nearly 10 percent of Mozambique’s national GHG emissions.” (p.18)

“Given growth in national emissions over time, by 2028 the Project could account for around 6 percent of national GHG emissions.” (p.18)

“The Project is estimated to emit approximately 13 million tonnes of CO2 per year during full operation of six LNG Trains. The Project GHG emissions will increase the level of Mozambique’s GHG emissions by 9.4 percent when six LNG Trains are projected to be operational in 2022.” (p.18)

“The duration of the impact is regarded as permanent, as science has indicated that the persistence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is said to range between 100 and 500 years and therefore continues beyond the life of the project… In light of the above, the significance of the impact of GHG emissions from the Project on Mozambique’s national GHG emissions can be considered MAJOR.” (p.20)

And according to the EIA Non-technical Summary:

“Given the scale and nature of the Project, while good practice can be employed to reduce the GHG emissions, the overall significance of the impact is not expected to significantly change post-mitigation.” (p.14)

The EIA also underestimates the impact of the methane that will be released as a result of the project in northern Mozambique. The assessment uses a global warming potential for methane of 25, based on the outdated 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whereas, according to the 2014 report from the IPCC, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 87 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20 year timeframe. Additionally, the assessment greatly underestimates the amount of methane that the project will emit, finding that the project will release a total of only 1.814 tons per year and will not emit a significant amount of fugitive methane.

Unfortunately, this assessment is not alone in underestimating the methane from a project. Methane emissions are a major problem for the oil and gas sector; some estimates put methane leakage from oil and gas production at 17 percent. Studies have found that regulators are not properly estimating these emissions from natural gas fields. Part of the reason for this, is a device commonly used to measure the methane that leaks from industrial sources may greatly underestimate those emissions. Natural gas’s release of large amounts of methane led to a Cornell University review of the scientific research that found conventional natural gas has a greater climate impact than coal. Contrary to what one might think, the newer the gas well, the more likely the well is to leak methane. These wells will continue to leak methane long after Total, Eni, ExxonMobil and other energy companies have stopped using them to extract natural gas.

This assessment fails to consider the impact of the project as a whole, merely looking at the greenhouse gas impact of one LNG project. Yet this project does not exist in a vacuum; it is merely one piece of the entire area of gas development in the Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique and only part of the process until the gas reaches its ultimate destination – a natural gas-fired power plant. The LNG project lifecycle processes of production, transport, liquification, shipping, regassification, and power plant combustion is incredibly energy intensive. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the liquefaction, transport, and regasification process increases the total lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions from the natural gas industry by 15 percent. Therefore, looking at just one LNG project ignores the wider climate impact of this project.

General climate impacts of the gas industry 

Contrary to what the fossil fuel industry and its financiers keep telling us, gas is just as destructive for the climate as oil or coal. They have touted gas as ‘clean energy’ and a ‘transition fuel’, one that is needed to bridge a gap between oil and coal, and renewable energy, because it emits less carbon dioxide than oil and coal. However, gas is just as bad, if not more so, because it releases methane, which in the short term is much more concentrated. Over a 10 year period, methane is 100 times as potent at CO2 emissions.

The importance of methane emissions from fossil gas is much greater than previously believed:

Firstly, the role of methane has been underestimated by a factor of five. It used to be considered 21 times as potent as CO2 in causing global warming. This number relied on a convention to calculate CO2 equivalencies over a 100-year time frame. Methane, however, only stays in the atmosphere for 12 years. Calculating its effect over 100 years, then, shows a misleading number. In real life, methane is over 100 times as potent in warming the planet as CO2 while it is present. The warming observed at the moment is caused by methane to a very significant degree. To the ~7 Gigatons of CO2 emitted every year through global fossil gas consumption, we need to add about 2% leaked me- thane, which puts the overall contribution of the fossil gas industry at ~11 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent. This alone – if it continues – is enough to take us beyond 1.5°C warming before the end of the century.

Secondly, methane has shown a strong increase over the past years, mainly due to fossil gas extraction, most notably through fracking in the US. Leakage rates of methane in the atmosphere are not well quantified, because this leakage does not get properly monitored.

Up to 10% of all the methane escapes along the supply chain. We know that leaked methane emissions are higher for LNG, because the liquefaction and transport in gas tankers leaks some of the gas into the atmosphere.

Lastly, the “social cost of methane” which depends largely on its climate impacts is not included in economic calculations.

Gas tankers holding LNG are veritable “climate bombs”. The biggest LNG carriers hold an emissions potential bigger than the annual emissions of whole countries like Mozambique, Costa Rica or Nepal. Calling fossil gas “climate-friendly” is therefore highly misleading. This notion is especially damaging since fossil gas infrastructures are often laid out for a lifetime of several decades, long after a full decarbonization of the global energy system must have taken place. They also require high investments, often in the billions of Euros, which on the one hand displace investments in renewables and on the other create a path dependency – a lock-in to fossil gas.

New gas infrastructure (as well as coal and oil) has been shown to be incompatible with the Paris Agreement. Fossil gas extraction and use will have to be reduced swiftly over the next years to allow the world to meet the 1.5°C target.