During the last plenary session of this legislative term on 16 April 2019, Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, addressed the European Parliament, calling decision-makers “to panic” and “to act as if the house was on fire”. She, alongside the FridaysForFuture movement, is having a tremendous impact at a global level to increase the feeling of urgency among decision makers and within the general population and put the fight against climate change at the top of the political agenda. I feel incredibly grateful for that. I believe, however, that after the panic attack, it is the role of policy makers to agree on a well thought out, methodical plan detailing the long and complex road to the complete decarbonisation of our economy.
I believe this plan should be based on the following sequence. First, we must give absolute priority to energy savings to drastically reduce our energy consumption. Secondly, we should pursue smart electrification wherever possible: renewable energy sources like solar and wind, combined with flexibility solutions, are mature, affordable and available enough to fully decarbonise the power sector. Yet, electrification is unlikely to supply all energy needs and there should be space for other fuels in the future for industry, for some segments of the transport sector, for individual heating and for seasonal storage.
To comply with the Paris Climate Agreement, these other fuels cannot be of fossil origin. This means there will be no place for fossil gas. The different types of gases remaining in the energy mix will need to be renewable and to comply with ambitious sustainability criteria. This assessment seems to be shared not only by decision makers, but also by industry, at least in words.
But my political experience has taught me to rely more on deeds than on words and I observe that those who claim they intend to decarbonise the gas sector keep investing in costly fossil fuel assets that will require decades to pay back: Nord Stream 2, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, LNG terminals…If the gas industry is serious about the complete decarbonisation of the sector, these investments must be stopped.
Then comes the question about the technologies available to decarbonise the gas sector. We could support biomethane at the local level, where waste and residues are available in sufficient quantities. Biogas production should in no circumstances use imported feedstock or dedicated crops. It should also not incentivise the development of mega-farms. If we don’t do it correctly, biomethane could become the new agrofuel. On the contrary, if we do it correctly, biomethane can be interesting from a social perspective as it offers new revenues for small farms.
It is widely acknowledged, however, that sustainable biomethane will not be available in sufficient quantities to cover all needs across Europe. For that reason, industry presents hydrogen and power-to-gas as part of the climate solution. These gases can indeed be fantastic energy carriers and offer plenty of storage options, very convenient from a sector coupling point of view. But we need guarantees about their feedstock: climate action requires that electricity used for hydrogen production is renewable and carbon dioxide used for power-to-gas should come from ambient air rather than the combustion of fossil fuels.
For that purpose, we should establish strict and transparent definitions based on sound criteria for all these gaseous fuels. The use of “green”, “sustainable” or “near-zero carbon” gas is misleading and leaves the door open to gaseous fuels that are not climate-friendly, just like we left the door open to climate harmful first generation biodiesel.
In addition, with the exception of hydrogen, all types of gases, including biomethane, may emit significant volumes of methane in the atmosphere over their entire lifecycle. We should find a solution for that problem and the European Commission should develop a strategic plan for methane as soon as possible.
Finally, there is as yet no proof that these fuels are available at affordable cost in sufficient volumes to make a significant contribution to our decarbonisation effort. And some obstacles are still to be removed. For example, an ambitious European industrial policy on electrolysers is necessary to reduce production costs for renewable hydrogen.
While I fully grasp the necessity to decarbonise the gas sector as energy efficiency and electrification will not cover all energy needs by 2050, there is a high risk that illusionary renewable gas scenarios never materialise and lead to either stranded assets or a high-carbon lock-in. Proof is still needed that the gas sector is serious about its climate commitments. This means stopping new fossil fuel gas investment, agreeing on a sound taxonomy for all new gases and finding an adequate solution to methane.
The upcoming “gas package”, due to be discussed by the new European Commission at the end of the year, is a good opportunity to address these concerns. The Commission should prioritise the decarbonisation of the economy in line with the Paris Agreement and broader sustainability questions and bring forward integrated solutions rather than limit its initiative to a light-touch reform of current gas market rules.
Florent Marcellesi recently issued a policy paper on renewable gas
This article is part of a series examining how to decarbonise heating and cooling systems
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