The future role of gas in Europe has never been more uncertain than it is today. Gas is under increasing scrutiny as the European Commission (and perhaps soon the European Council too) backs carbon neutrality by 2050. With prospects for fossil gas increasingly tenuous, industry is pinning its hopes on so-called green gas. At the Madrid Forum on Europe’s internal gas market this week, it is time to get real about the future of gas.
For years, advocates have argued that gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels. But with gains in the recent European elections for parties, such as the greens, promising strong climate action, and growing awareness and protests calling for action to tackle the climate emergency, words are no longer enough. All future fuels need to be able to prove they fit within the goals, and the tight carbon budget, of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Fossil gas remains a fossil fuel and its relative cleanness, compared to coal and oil, is far from clear cut, in particular when underestimated methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) are taken into account. And in a world of climate emergency, a minor advantage is not enough.
The European Commission’s 2050 long-term climate strategy foresees up to 90% less fossil gas demand compared to today. If we are serious about keeping global warming below 1.5°C, or even 2°C, this is the least to be expected.
In Madrid, the gas industry will argue for a continued central role in our energy system and a growing role in the transport sector. It will claim the mantle of sustainability with promises of new forms of green gases and technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Serious doubts remain, however, as to whether such technologies can replace fossil gas and whether they are any cleaner. Blue hydrogen (produced from natural gas with CCS) still involves continuing to drill for fossil gas.
The stakes are high as the European Commission is preparing a major new gas package. This could put into concrete EU policy its planned fossil gas phase-down, paving the way to the zero-carbon fossil-free Europe the planet needs. Whether this is the Commission’s real intention, though, remains to be seen. Between its declared ambition to decarbonise gas, and concrete actions, lies a vast gap of contradiction.
The Commission has given constant political and financial support to the construction of new gas infrastructure via its list of Projects of Common Interest, further expanding the gas system. These hefty investments would become stranded assets if gas demand drops in line with the Commission’s 2050 projections. The Commission has also rolled out the red carpet for US fracked liquified natural gas, expanding this most climate-damaging source of gas despite most of Europe having banned, delayed or legislated against fracking at home.
Uncertainty over the upcoming gas market reform is reinforced by the level of influence of the gas industry through the Madrid Forum. It seems a sure fire bet industry will not conclude that it needs to cut itself down by 90% and we know from statements by the Deputy General Director of the Commission’s energy department that gas industry analyses will firmly shape EU policy proposals.
Similarly, in reporting on the problem of fugitive methane emissions to the Forum, Gas Infrastructure Europe and Marcogaz minimise the problem and potency of escaping methane, overlook major upstream methane escape (in non-EU countries that produce two-thirds of our gas), and press for only voluntary measures to deal with these problems.
The gas industry is relying on the promise of green gas to avoid any phase-out. Eurogas, tasked to develop terminology for new forms of gas for the Forum, suggests the European Commission should classify hydrogen made with fossil gas as decarbonised. But this dangerously overlooks the ineffectiveness of CCS used in the process as well as the inevitable upstream greenhouse gas emissions (methane in particular) from extracting and transporting gas. Such terminology would allow the gas industry to greenwash a part of its business while allowing it to continue its Paris-incompatible fossil gas extraction.
In deciding on the future of gas in Europe — and ultimately our chances of averting climate breakdown — the Commission must rely on its own expertise and that of independent scientists, rather than the recommendations of stakeholders whose principal aim is to maintain their existing business model. The urgent and massive scale of the climate emergency no longer allows space for yesterday’s greenwashing, self-regulation and half-measures.
Instead, for the upcoming gas package the Commission should:
It will be all too tempting for the Commission, guided by the gas industry, to postpone the necessary transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels. But this will only increase the pain later, increase the chances of overshooting the Paris targets and prevent renewable energy and energy savings from fulfilling their role in the transition.
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