Green Brief: Clarity on Gas

Green brief

Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

It’s been three years now at least since discussions on the “future role of gas” have been keeping EU energy policymakers and commentators busy. And it’s remarkable how little progress has been achieved since then, at least on the legislative front.

So it was refreshing to have some clarity from the European Commission on how it intends to regulate the sector. And Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, did not mince his words.

“I want to be crystal clear: fossil fuels have no viable future,” he told participants at the Eurogas annual conference last week. “And that also goes for fossil gas, in the longer run.”

“The future,” he continued, “is in carbon-free electricity and a decarbonised gas sector, which embraces hydrogen as an energy carrier and green hydrogen as the final destination.” At best, he said, fossil gas will “play a transitional role, for a limited period of time” in countries like Poland, which are currently heavily dependent on coal and lack other options to decarbonise at the speed and scale necessary.

Clarity on gas may seem long overdue but it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Clear signals that the European Commission is about to launch a crackdown on the gas industry became explicit in September last year when the EU executive presented its 2030 climate target plan. “By 2030, coal consumption would be reduced by more than 70% compared to 2015, and oil and gas by more than 30% and 25%, respectively,” the Commission said in its new climate policy proposals.

The big question now is how these political intentions will be translated into law. Under the previous Commission, officials had announced a “gas package” of legislation which was initially expected in 2020. The new Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen delayed the initiative until June 2021, wrapping the gas review into its upcoming June package of energy and climate laws, aimed at achieving the bloc’s updated climate targets for 2030.

By then, Commission officials were no longer talking about a “gas package” but a “gas decarbonisation package,” a semantic move aimed at underlining a shift in priority towards climate action.

The focus of the reform, officials explained, is no longer to conceive legislation “for” the gas sector but to regulate an industry whose emissions are quickly turning into a liability in Europe’s fight against climate change.

The “gas decarbonisation” package has since been further delayed until December, and will be presented together with new regulations to address methane leaks along the gas supply chain. In the meantime, an update of the renewable energy directive in June will have put in place a certification system for hydrogen, allowing buyers to distinguish renewable hydrogen from other, more polluting forms of hydrogen made from fossil gas.

For the industry, it will be a moment of reckoning. All signs are now pointing towards a de-growth in the gas sector. The key question is how rapid it will be.

This week’s top stories

News from the capitals

WARSAW. Poland, others step up push for gas in EU green finance rules. Poland, Bulgaria and seven other countries have stepped up their push to ensure natural gas is classed as a sustainable investment under EU finance rules, warning Brussels its latest proposal falls short, a document seen by Reuters showed.

PRAGUE. Czech Industry, Trade and Transport Minister Karel Havlíček has dismissed the government’s commissioner for nuclear energy, Jaroslav Míl, after he criticised the minister for inviting Russian company Rosatom to take part in a tender to build a new unit of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, despite previous warnings by the country’s security services. Read more.

ATHENS. Greece’s national recovery plan was given a green light by the cabinet on Monday and will be presented by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis once Brussels approves the final plan in April, government sources have said. Read more.

HELSINKI. After years of delay, budget overruns and contractual arguments, the construction of Olkiluoto 3 – Finland’s fifth nuclear reactor built by French-German consortium Areva-Siemens – is finally nearing completion. It is set to become Europe’s largest nuclear reactor and arguably one of the world’s most modern. Read more.

PARIS. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across several French cities on Sunday, denouncing the “lack of ambition” in the current version of theClimate and Resilience billwhich will be examined by the National Assembly on Monday. The protesters, who were joined by dozens of NGOs, trade unions and party representatives, criticised the bill for “ransacking” the proposals made by the Citizen’s Climate Convention, a group of 150  randomly picked members of the public who were given the opportunity to make proposals and amendments to the bill. Read more on the law here (Anne Damiani | EURACTIV.fr)

VILNIUS. After an alleged incident at the Belarusian nuclear plant in Ostrovets earlier this month, radiation monitoring stations across the country went dark, making the publicly accessible radiation monitoring data in Belarus disappear for several hours, Lithuanian officials said. Read more.

PRAGUE. The Czech secret services have warned the Czech government against including Russian energy giant Rosatom in a planned tender on building a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power station, saying it would leave the country vulnerable. Read more.

PODGORICA. Offshore oil exploration in Montenegro begins. The Italian and Russian Eni-Novatek consortium will start exploratory drilling for oil off the Montenegrin coast on Thursday, the country’s ministry of capital investments has told CdM. Read more.

BERLIN. On Thursday (25 March), the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag, approved the EU’s €750 billion recovery fund. The EU’s plan to take on joint debt and channel the money to member states worst hit by COVID-19 will create an important tool to overcome the crisis, but must be a one-off event, said Chancellor Angela Merkel. Read more.

The day after, on Friday, Germany’s constitutional court suspended the ratification of the recovery fund, saying it can only be approved once they have heard all the legal challenges against it. The court did not give a timeframe for when its decision is expected. Read more.

News in brief

New legislation on green buildings taking shape. The European Commission launched a public consultation on Tuesday (30 March) about the upcoming revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which was last revised three years ago. The consultation is open until 22 June, with an updated directive expected in Q4.

Three policy options are envisaged in the Commission’s “inception impact assessment”. Tellingly, the first is “no policy change”, while the second option is mainly about soft measures such as technical assistance and information campaigns. The third option is the one green campaigners will like most: it concerns “the phased introduction of mandatory minimum energy performance standards for different types of buildings (public and private, non-residential and residential)”. “One option could be to start with stricter requirements for specific types of buildings, such as public buildings or office buildings, and to extend progressively the requirements to other buildings,” the document says. More.

Climate law: ‘It takes two to tango’. Climate law negotiations are making sluggish progress, with critics warning that the Parliament and Council are endangering the Commission’s June package of climate legislation by digging in their heels.

Green shadow rapporteur, Michael Bloss, said the Council needs to find a new mandate: “Compromise needs two to tango and currently, we are ready to dance and we wait for the Council to accept our invitation.”

Suzana Carp from the think tank Bellona Europe, said there is room in the Council’s mandate for it to budge on the 2030 target, particularly on the “net” aspect of the 2030 target: “I’m pretty confident that the Council will have to move, but also I know that there are quite a few member states who actually don’t support the net target approach. They’re extremely worried about what it would mean at COP 26.”

We also got a glance inside the room where negotiations take place as one of Bloss’s team snapped a selfie during the talks. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

People’s Climate Case thrown out. More 2030 target drama happened in the European Court of Justice, where the landmark case of 10 families from the EU and beyond who took the EU to court over its former 40% emissions reduction target, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

They argued the target violated their human rights by failing to tackle climate change and, therefore, it failed to protect their life, health, occupation and property. But, while the Court agreed they are affected by climate change, it overturned it on the grounds of 1960s case law, where an individual must be “uniquely” affected by an EU legislative act to challenge it.

Climate Action Network Europe says the decision points to a wider issue of poor access to justice for environmental matters and displays a “fear of action by citizens” while the coordinating lawyer for the case, Roda Verheyen said: “The EU courts failed to interpret existing rules in the context of climate change. This judgement is wholly unconvincing and only speaks of the fear of action by citizens.” (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Tense trade. On Monday (22 March), EU foreign ministers adopted targeted sanctions over human rights violations in Xinjiang, where there are growing concerns about human rights violations, including Uighur Muslims in forced labour camps. China hit back, sanctioning ten Europeans, as well as the entire Political and Security Committee and the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament.

There are concerns about how the detention camps, which activists say imprison over a million of the Uighur Muslim minority, link to the EU supply chain, including green technology, like components for solar panels.

“In Europe, we do not want Chinese products made by forced labour. European and German companies should stop business relations with Chinese companies if production is carried out using forced labour under inhumane conditions,” said Bavarian Green MEP Henrike Hahn. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

‘No time to lose’ on recovery plans. There is “no time to lose” on the swift assessment of the final recovery plans, said President von der Leyen on Twitter after a meeting of the Recovery and Resilience Facility’s Steering Board on Monday (29 March).

Meanwhile, Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, has said he is confident that the ratification of the recovery and resilience plans by the 27 member states can be completed by mid-April with the Portuguese programme aiming to be ready for the end of this month.

Speaking at a press conference in Lisbon after an EU summit last week, Costa said only four countries – Austria, Poland, Hungary and the Netherlands – have not yet defined a timetable for national ratification of the Recovery and Resilience Plan.

Last week, the Portuguese presidency with the European Parliament overcame an issue blocking ratification by the Baltic States, he said, while the Netherlands, which recently held elections, had taken the cautious position of proceeding with the ratification in the lower house before dissolving parliament. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com, Pedro Morais Fonseca | Lusa)

9 EU countries back carbon border levy. Nine EU member states – Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Spain and the Netherlands – have written an op-ed for an “effective, legitimate and fair” carbon border adjustment mechanism, based on four principles: 1) World Trade Organisation conformity; 2) Step by step implementation; 3) Minimising administrative burdens; 4) Operational feasibility.

“The mechanism must also retain robust and fair benchmarks for the calculation of the adjustment. This could be based, at first, on a default value for the carbon intensity of imported products while allowing importers to the EU to demonstrate the lower carbon intensity of their products, thereby providing an incentive for better climate efficiency,” they write.

The signatories also called for the carbon border levy to take into account the climate policies and development of third countries with a “gradual approach that could first apply to a limited number of pilot sectors facing a high risk of leakage”. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Breathe easy. The European Parliament on Thursday (25 March) called for better enforcement and improved air quality standards in line with the World Health Organisation’s stricter criteria to tackle air pollution, the largest environmental risk to health in Europe. The resolution on the Ambient Air Quality Directives also called for pollutants such as ultrafine particles, black carbon, mercury, and ammonia to be regulated and for a watch list addressing substances or compounds of concern on grounds of health.

“We should bear in mind that air pollution causes approximately 400,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, and it has devastating effects on the environment. The EU cannot remain impassive towards this threat,” said Socialists and Democrats rapporteur, Javi Lopez.

However, a curveball came from the German European People’s Party and Renew delegations, which were concerned about the implication of higher ambition in air quality for the car industry. The centre-right European People’s Party was expected to abstain from the final vote, but almost half of its MEPs decided to support the whole text and it was approved with a broad majority. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Oslo CCS project gets EU green light. A carbon capture and storage project at Oslo’s Varme incinerator was shortlisted as one of the 70 projects that will receive financial support from the EU’s €1 billion Innovation Fund. “This is fantastic news for us and for the project. It shows that the EU believes that CCS is an essential technology to achieve significant emission reductions from waste incineration,” said Jannicke Gerner Bjerkås, CCS director at Fortum Oslo Varme. The Commission is expected to decide on a final list of successful projects before the end of 2021. EURACTIV spoke to Bjerkås and the governing mayor of Oslo earlier this month. Read the article here. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)

No more kicking the can down the road. The European Aluminium and Metal Packaging Europe launched a joint roadmap towards recycling 100% aluminium drinks cans by 2030 on Wednesday (25 March). Europe had a recycling rate of 76.1% for aluminium drinks cans in 2018 and the roadmap looks at how the industry can become a front-runner in a circular economy in the next decade.

“The aluminium industry can be praised for its efforts to improve the recyclability rate of aluminium beverage packaging. But work still remains to be done. Our ambition is that all packaging put on the EU market in 2030 is either recyclable or reusable,” said Kestutis Sadauskas, director for circular economy and green growth at the Commission’s environment department. See the full roadmap here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

€100 million for Greek oil and gas. The Commission has approved €100 million of state aid to support the Greek oil and gas company, Energean, impacted by COVID-19. It operates an oil extraction site in Greece under a concession contract and generates most revenues from crude oil, but has suffered severe losses since the oil price plummeted. The aid looks to address these liquidity needs and should be granted before the end of the year. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Podcast

Changing environment: the green future of European regions. The European Regional Development and Cohesion funds, the classical tools of the EU’s cohesion policy, will disburse €242.9 billion euros during the 2021-2027 period, 30% of which will go to greening.

In this episode we discuss how the cohesion policy contributes to protecting the environment and tackling climate change, taking a closer look at what the next seven years have in store compared to the previous budgetary period of 2014-2020.

Don’t forget to subscribe on Spotify!

Changing environment: the green future of European regions

Upcoming events

  • 29 APRIL: Blue economy: the potential of our oceans to contribute to a green recovery. According to OECD projections, by 2030, the “Blue Economy” could outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. Join our event to look at how a sector with a turnover of €750 billion that currently employs 5 million people in Europe presents important potential in terms of both its contribution to a green recovery and the European Green Deal goals. Register here

On our radar

  • 22 APRIL: Leaders’ Climate Summit. On the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement opening for signatures, the US will host a climate conference convening the leaders of major economies. The US is also expected to announce its updated Paris commitment around this meeting.
  • MAY (date tbc): Commission to publish zero-pollution action plan for water, air and soil as part of the European Green Deal.
  • 21 JUNE: Environment council. Ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the climate adaptation strategy.
  • JUNE (date tbc): Fit for 55 package. The Commission is expected to table a huge package of green legislation in June, including a revision of the renewable energy directive, a revision of the emissions trading scheme and our first glimpse at a carbon border adjustment mechanism.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe