Climate scientists have described the shocking images of gas spewing onto the surface of the Baltic Sea as a “reckless release” of greenhouse gas emissions that deliberately amounts to “environmental crime”.

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An obscure gas leak from two underwater pipelines connecting Russia and Germany has sent massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Climate scientists this week described the shocking images of gas spewing onto the surface of the Baltic Sea as a “reckless release” of greenhouse gas emissions, a deliberate “scale of environmental crime”.

On Monday, seismologists reported an explosion in the vicinity of the unusual Nord Stream gas leak, which is located in international waters but within the exclusive economic zones of Denmark and Sweden.

Denmark’s armed forces said video footage showed the largest gas leak forming a surface barrier about 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) in diameter, while the smallest leak formed a circle roughly 200 meters across.

Climate scientists acknowledge that the exact size of emissions is difficult to accurately measure, and say the leak is an “ocean bubble” compared to the amount of methane emitted worldwide every day.

Still, environmental campaigners argue that the incident represents a risk of sabotage or accident making fossil infrastructure a “ticking time bomb”.

How bad is that?

Researchers from the German Environment Agency (UBA) estimate that the climate impact of the spill is equivalent to approximately 7.5 million metric tons of carbon.

The agency said the spill is expected to release a total of 300,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is significantly more harmful to the climate than carbon, UBA researchers said, with one ton of methane warming the atmosphere as much as 25 tons of carbon over a 100-year period.

BORNHOLM, DENMARK – SEPTEMBER 27: Danish defense shows a gas leak from a Danish F-16 interceptor at Nord Stream 2 on September 27, 2022 in Bornholm, Denmark.

Danish Defence/ | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

For reference, the International Energy Agency estimates that annual global methane emissions are about 570 million tons.

This means the Nord Stream gas leak’s estimated emissions are a fraction of the global total each year, although campaigners argue the incident serves as yet another reminder of the risks associated with fossil fuel infrastructure.

Paul Balcombe, honorary lecturer in chemical engineering at Imperial College London, said that even if just one of the two leaking Nord Stream pipes released all of its contents, it would contain twice as much methane as the 2015 Aliso Canyon spill in California. Largest known release of methane in US history.

Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon and does not last long in the atmosphere before it decomposes. This makes it an important target for quickly combating climate change while reducing emissions of other greenhouse gases.

The massive spills of water from the spill like we see in the images are symbolic of the enormous amount of fossil fuels the world is burning.

Geoffrey Cargel

Senior Scientist of Planetary Research Institute Dr

The cause of the Nord Stream gas leak is still not understood. Many in Europe suspect sabotage, especially as the incident comes amid a bitter energy standoff between Brussels and Moscow. Russia has dismissed claims that it was behind the suspected attack as ‘foolish’.

Denmark’s Energy Agency said Wednesday that emissions from gas leaks account for roughly a third of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on initial estimates by the Danish government, the worst-case scenario would see emissions of 778 million standard cubic meters of gas, or 14.6 million metric tons of carbon equivalent. By comparison, Danish emissions in 2020 were about 45 million tonnes of carbon equivalent.

Grant Allen, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Manchester, said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline alone could hold up to 177 million cubic meters of gas.

Allen said the amount was equivalent to the gas used by 124,000 UK households in a year. “This is not a reduction in the amount of gas and represents a reckless emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” he added.

Jeffrey Cargel, a senior scientist at the Planetary Research Institute in Tucson, Arizona, described the gas leak in the Nord Stream pipeline as “a real fraud” and “an environmental crime if deliberate.”

“The large amount of water spilled from the spill, as we see in the imagery, is a symbol of the enormous amount of fossil fuels the world is burning,” Kargel said.

“The global climate is changing on a massive scale, with massive impacts on extreme weather every year, decade after decade. This is climate change so extreme that almost every adult on Earth knows it from first-hand experience,” he added. “We can literally feel it on our skin.”

Europe should go ‘full tilt’ for renewable energy

Neither pipeline was pumping gas at the time of the leak but both lines were still under pressure: Nord Stream 1 stopped pumping gas to Europe “indefinitely” earlier this month, with Moscow’s operator saying international sanctions on Russia prevented it from carrying out critical maintenance work.

Meanwhile, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline did not officially open because Germany refused to certify it for commercial operations due to Russia’s indirect aggression against Ukraine.

“The most direct impact of these gas leaks on the climate is the powerful greenhouse gas methane – the main component of natural gas – they are adding to the atmosphere,” said Dave Ray, executive director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute.

“That is, compared to the so-called ‘fugitive methane’ emitted every day worldwide by things like fracking, coal mining and oil extraction, it’s a wee bubble in the ocean,” he added.

Environmental campaigners argue that the threat of vandalism or accidents makes fossil infrastructure a “ticking time bomb”.

Lisi Niesner | Reuters

“The risk of vandalism or accidents makes fossil fuel infrastructure a ticking time bomb, but even on good days oil and gas pipes and storage methane continue to leak,” Silvia Pastorelli, energy campaigner at the EU climate and environment group Greenpeace, told CNBC by email.

“Behind all these numbers of cubic meters and megatons there are real risks for real people, this powerful greenhouse gas is accelerating the climate crisis that caused the heat waves in Europe this summer or the more destructive storms that are now hitting Florida,” Pastorelli said.

“Gas pipes to Norway or Algeria are not going to get us out of this mess, instead Europe must go full tilt for renewable energy and real energy savings that protect vulnerable people.”

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