Climate Change

Why ending gas flaring could help the planet

Anita Marangoly George
Senior Director, The World Bank
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This post first appeared on The World Bank’s Sustainable Energy For All Blog.

Six months. Forty-five endorsers. We’re well on our way to an ambitious new de facto global standard for the oil and gas industry.

It feels like just yesterday senior representatives from 25 governments, oil companies and development institutions came together with the U.N. Secretary General and World Bank President to launch a global initiative—“Zero Routine Flaring by 2030”—to end the oil industry practice of routinely flaring gas at oil production sites around the world.

Today, 45 endorsers representing over 40 percent of global gas flaring have stepped forward to commit to not wastefully flare gas in new oil field developments and to end existing (legacy) routine gas flaring as soon as possible and no later than 2030.

And we expect the number of endorsers to keep growing till all major oil-producing countries and companies make the same commitment.

Every year, around 140 billion cubic meters of natural gas produced together with oil is wastefully burned or “flared” at thousands of oil fields around the world. If this amount of associated gas were used for power generation, it could provide more electricity (750 billion kWh) than all of Africa consumes today. But currently the gas is flared for a variety of technical, regulatory and economic reasons, or because its use is not given high priority.

I often think about all the people who have to live around these gas flares. In some cases, the sound alone is enough to cause alarm, leave aside the fact that they are just about the hottest things on earth; even hotter than volcanoes. In fact, we have a colleague at the Bank, Etta, who remembers growing up in the 1980s with gas flares and black smoke in the background. Imagine waking up to that sight every day and wondering what impacts it has on your family and community.

Over the last several decades what have we done to change this reality for thousands of people who live near gas flares? Not enough. And that’s why we launched the new Initiative. It’s time to accelerate our efforts.

Rather than continuing to wastefully flare this valuable resource, we, at the World Bank, along with our partners want to see the gas used for productive, development purposes or conserved by reinjecting it back into the ground. For example, the gas could be used to produce electricity for millions of energy-starved people. It could be used to power hospitals and keep streetlights on at night. It could also be used for heating or cooking, or as feedstock for petrochemicals.

The list goes on.

Simply put, it is a resource that could be used to improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world.

And I haven’t even touched on the other big reason we should get to zero routine gas flaring as soon as possible—climate change.

Annually, flaring results in about 350 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) going into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to emissions from approximately 77 million cars. In many flares some of the hydrocarbons are only partially burnt and the carbon content is emitted as grains of black carbon (soot)—bad for people and bad for the environment.

Climate change is easily a defining issue of our generation. So much so that right now thousands of people are gathered in Paris for the U.N.’s Climate Change Conference, or COP21, to try and reach a universal agreement on ways to mitigate climate change. Governments around the world will be looking for ways to move to cleaner and more efficient sources of energy to transition to a low carbon future. Ending routine gas flaring can be a key contribution to this goal.

Let’s take on this issue with renewed urgency. I urge all oil-producing countries and oil companies who have yet to endorse and commit to the initiative to do so. It would be a powerful demonstration of responsible resource management and environmental stewardship. Of all the actions we can take to mitigate climate change, this one is doable. The technologies to reinject this gas or harness it for productive use are available. We just need to acknowledge it is time to end this practice and commit the necessary resources.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Anita Marangoly George is Senior Director of the World Bank Group’s Global Practice on Energy and Extractive Industries.

Image: A tower at an oil refinery flares as it cooks off excess natural gas. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra.

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