Climate experts insist fossil fuels have no place in post-2035 EU energy plans

Protesters hold a banner depicting the earth on the opening day of the UN Climate Change Conference COP23, in Bonn, Germany, 6 November 2017. [Philipp Guelland/ EPA]

The EU will exhaust its share of the global carbon budget within nine years and jeopardise the Paris Agreement’s two degrees target if emissions from fossil fuels continue at their current rate, a new study has warned.

The research was carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and Teeside University and commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe.

In order to stick to the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global warming “well below two degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels, there is only a certain amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted, the so-called ‘carbon budget’.

For the EU, the carbon budget for energy-only post-2017 emissions is between 23 and 32 gigatons of CO2. According to the study, this equates to between six and nine years of current energy-only emissions, suggesting that the clock is very much ticking.

Emission cuts: We're two-thirds below what's needed, UN says

The UN published its annual emission gap report on Tuesday (31 October), highlighting a dismal record:  ahead of COP23, countries fall two-thirds short of what is needed to reach the agreed reduction in emissions.

Furthermore, the reduced capacity of non-OECD countries to mitigate climate change means that by 2035 the EU will have to reduce energy emissions by 95% in order to not use up the carbon budget, study authors Professor Kevin Anderson and Dr John Broderick concluded.

They added that this challenge means “there is categorically no role for bringing additional fossil fuel reserves, including gas, into production”.

Methane dangers

A third of all anthropogenic methane emissions come from the fossil fuels industry, and the chemical compound has a global-warming potential that can be 34 times higher than CO2.

But International Association of Oil & Gas Producers spokesperson Nareg Terzian told EURACTIV.com that “there is a disproportionate focus on the gas sector when it comes to methane emissions”.

“The International Energy Agency’s most recent study shows that gas only accounts for around 10% of manmade methane emissions. Our industry takes the issue seriously and is putting in a lot of effort to solve it but if the objective is really to deal with methane emissions, we need to look at the whole picture and not just a small part of it,” he added.

Indeed, researchers are quickly discovering that methane is emitted from a number of diverse sources and that human activity threatens to increase those emissions.

Last year, a study found that hydroelectric projects emit a billion tonnes a year as rotting vegetation breaks down in the reservoirs behind dams, while researchers this year suggested that increased aquatic farming could lead to shellfish stocks producing more methane.

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Where did all the gas go?

Anderson and Broderick also insist that there are huge uncertainties when it comes to monitoring emissions along the whole natural gas supply chain, including gas pipeline leakage, the total emissions of liquefied natural gas (LNG) transportation, abandoned gas wells and fracking.

But recent empirical studies have shown that methane emission levels reported by governments are large underestimates due to these monitoring difficulties, which means it is difficult to establish the true effect of the gas on climate change.

These factors led the study to conclude that fossil fuels, including natural gas, must not have a substantial role in the EU’s energy system after 2035 if Europe intends to honour the two-degree pledge.

IOGP’s spokesperson said that “we have to make a distinction when we talk about fossil fuels. Focusing on gas when coal accounts for 80% of EU power generation emissions is a distraction.

“Once you take care of that, you can use gas to solve a big part of your carbon budget problem. There’s a reason why the IEA sees a drop in coal use and a rise in gas demand in its 2°C scenario.”

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Projects of Common Interest

Calls to phase out all fossil fuels appears to fly in the face of the current situation, as the EU is on the verge of updating its list of Projects of Common Interest (PCIs), which includes infrastructure projects that will contribute to the bloc’s energy goals and are eligible for preferential funding.

“Europe’s infatuation with gas is totally incompatible with serious action on climate change,” Friends of the Earth Europe Director Jagoda Munic said.

But Eurogas, the association of European gas distributors, said on Monday (6 November) that gas consumption would increase 5.9% in 2017 compared with 2016 and that this has a “strong potential” to reduce CO2 emissions.

Europe's reliance on gas imports in spotlight as coal's decline continues

Electricity produced from natural gas has matched power generated from coal in OECD countries. But Europe’s gas self-sufficiency dropped below 50% for the very first time as well.

Unfair influence?

Over the last three years, the EU has spent more than €1billion in public money on gas projects and Brussels has been accused of giving in to significant industry pressure to invest in infrastructure.

Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog group, recently claimed that the gas industry spent more than €100 million in 2016 on organising events in the European Parliament and securing high-level meetings with EU climate and energy Commissioners Miguel Arias Cañete and Maroš Šefčovič, as well as other lobbying activities.

This has prompted green groups to renew their calls for the Commission to implement a moratorium on new public money-funded gas projects, as well as freezing all existing gas PCI projects.

Central-Eastern European pipeline gets go-ahead

An ambitious gas pipeline project connecting Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria received a shot in the arm on Thursday (28 September), when all of the involved parties signed a memorandum of understanding for the project, a vital part of Europe’s efforts to wean itself off Russian gas.

The 23rd edition of the UN’s annual climate conferences kicks off in Bonn, Germany this week, ahead of what is widely believed to be the more significant annual edition in Poland next year.

Positions

Boyana Achovski, chair of GasNaturally's steering committee, said: "Gas has an increasingly important role in Europe in reducing emissions and as a partner to variable renewables in power generation. There aren’t many large scale and quickly dispatchable energy sources which can fulfill this role, and that’s why we believe gas will retain this role well beyond 2035. The flexibility gas provides is much needed to compensate for the variability of electricity produced through solar or wind. This will guarantee security of power supply in the decades to come. It also has innovative potential like no other fuel and is already making itself relevant for the future energy mix, as the share of bio, synthetic, or decarbonised gas increases."