The Green Brief, powered by The Greens/EFA – Europe’s tightrope walk with gas

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In Europe, it seems fossil gas is the type of villain that can charm the hero into falling for its carbon-emitting lure. Whether it be as ‘transition fuel’ or ‘hydrogen-ready’, gas has an almost commendable ability to make itself relevant to the green transition.

There is a rational explanation for this. According to European Commission projections, electricity will meet only 53% of EU total energy demand by 2050, roughly double its current share, in a scenario aligned with the bloc’s climate neutrality goal. And even the EU power industry believes low-carbon electricity will not exceed 60% of the EU’s energy mix by mid-century

This means at least 40% of total energy demand will have to be met by “green molecules” or decarbonised gases, such as hydrogen, eFuels or biomethane. And that makes gas an inevitable part of the solution to the green transition.

But, in policy making, the decarbonisation of gas has left EU officials and lawmakers wobbling on a tightrope between Europe’s fossil-reliant past and renewable-led future. Balancing the role of gas against the urgent need to decarbonise has led to fractions within and between EU institutions.

At the moment, this divide is most obvious in the debate around the fifth projects of common interest (PCI) list. This niche, EU jargon thingamajig contains cross-border energy projects selected for priority status and was thrown into the spotlight last week as environmentalists panicked over the amount of gas included. Even star activist Greta Thunberg paused her focus on COP26 to express her concerns about it.

Those worries were echoed in the European Parliament as the Commission pitched the draft PCI list to lawmakers. The draft list was met with cross-party criticism by MEPs who called it “incompatible” with the Green Deal.

One lawmaker even dipped into spaghetti westerns to get the point across. “Madam Chair, let me give you the good, bad and ugly,” said Martin Hojsik, a Slovak MEP from the centrist Renew Europe group.

“The good – there is no oil. The bad – you praise the smart grids, but instead of the [fourth PCI list] when there were six projects, there are only five. And the ugly – obviously gas,” he said.

Before this, there was another hard-fought battle between European countries. It was on whether gas should be allowed in the revision of the TEN-E regulation – the rules deciding which projects are eligible for the PCI list.

In this particular battle, eleven anti-gas countries eventually dwindled down to four as the majority won out and gas was included.

An upcoming battleground is the fabled EU’s green finance taxonomy, which defines which investments the EU considers sustainable. A set of implementing rules under the taxonomy has already been delayed because EU countries, particularly in central and eastern Europe, want gas included as a transition fuel.

It was with this internal conflict churning that the European Commission went to COP26 to promote decarbonised energy and more climate ambition. It’s no wonder the EU executive was called out for hypocrisy.

At the same time as the EU executive was negotiating climate ambition at COP26, “this very same Commission proposes a new PCI list with gas projects included without any proper checks on their sustainability,” said Ville Niinistö from the Greens.

Perhaps the Commission slipped on the tightrope there.

Of course, the obvious explanation for Europe’s love/hate relationship with gas is that different countries have different energy mixes – a line you will hear from many central and eastern European countries if you bring up the Green Deal.

The European Commission’s view is that some EU countries need gas in the short term to exit coal. “Where, and as long as, clean energy cannot be deployed on the scale needed, fossil gas may still play a role in the transition from coal to zero-emission electricity,” EU climate chief Frans Timmermans has said.

But environmental campaigners see it as out of the frying pan into the fire. Gas infrastructure has a decades-long lifespan, meaning it will most likely become redundant or its continued use will be the downfall of Europe’s climate ambition.

Yes, there is hydrogen, which in a dream world could go speeding through those pipelines like the renewable lifeblood of a green Europe. But infrastructure will need to be repurposed for that and it’s still up for debate where hydrogen will actually be needed or produced in sufficient quantity.

Certainly, it seems unwise to build up a huge body of gas infrastructure, even as “hydrogen ready”, when it has long been acknowledged electrification is the way forward. Not to mention the energy crisis casting a light on the geopolitical tensions around imported gas.

Over the next few weeks, we will see how the European Commission plans to walk the tightrope to a decarbonised world. We’re due to see the taxonomy and the gas package before Christmas. Beyond that, there are hopes (possibly misplaced) of finishing the negotiations around the new TEN-E rules – and crucially the role of gas – by the end of the year.

There will be no winner in this prolonged battle over gas. All EU policymakers can hope is that they make it to the other side without falling off the tightrope.

– Kira Taylor


A message from the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament:

Exclude nuclear and gas from the EU taxonomy now!

Nuclear power and gas are not renewables. After promising a fossil fuel phase-out at COP26, the European Commission now proposes new nuclear and gas power plants to be considered “sustainable investments”. Support our campaign to stop this!


This week’s top stories

More stories


News from the capitals

EU PRESIDENCY. Green, digital transition at core of tourism recovery. EU ministers in charge of tourism agreed at a virtual informal meeting on Tuesday that the green and digital transition must form the core of the tourism sector’s post-pandemic recovery if the industry is to be put on a sustainable footing. Read more.

LJUBLJANA. Slovenia unable to reach climate goals without nuclear. Slovenia’s most senior energy official has acknowledged that the country will not be able to meet its climate targets without nuclear energy, making a new reactor at its sole nuclear power station a necessity. Read more.

PODGORICA. Expert: Oil to solve all Montenegrin financial issues by 2024. Oil is the only resource that can solve all Montenegrin financial problems by 2024, according to Vladimir Popović, a Canadian expert and consultant on geophysics and oil research of Montenegrin origin. Read more.

TIRANA. Report: Albania lacks spot market for electricity, plurality on energy market. Albania’s lack of a spot market for electricity and a lack of plurality on the energy market was highlighted in a recent report by the Energy Community Secretariat published this week. Read more.

DUBLIN. Former Irish president slams COP26 climate summit conclusion. “We didn’t quite succeed,” Former Irish President Mary Robinson said about the conclusion of the COP26 climate summit, adding that people under the age of 60 will likely face a “less liveable” world.  Read more.

LONDON. Johnson defends COP26 text. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has discussed the outcome of the UK hosted COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, insisting that the final deal sounds “the death knell for coal power”. Read more.

BUCHAREST. Romanian gas imports up 60%. Romania imported more than 2.06 million tons of the oil equivalent of natural gas, in the first nine months of the year., up 59.3% against the same period of 2020. Local production was 5.4 million tons in the analysed period, a 1.2% increase compared with the first nine months of last year, data from the statistics institute showed. Romania is one of the main producers of gas in the EU, but it still needs imports of Russian gas to cover its consumption, especially in the cold season. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

SOFIA. Bulgaria accuses Lukoil of abusing its dominant position. The Bulgarian Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC) has accused Lukoil Bulgaria of abusing its dominant position in the country’s fuel market following an investigation. Read more.

BUCHAREST. New Romanian law introduces tax on green energy producers. A recent law that sets up a scheme to compensate consumers for high energy prices also introduced a tax of 80% on additional income generated by electricity producers. However, the tax applies only to green energy producers, as fossil fuel producers are exempt. Read more.

LJUBLJANA. Scandal risks sweeping away Slovenia’s environment minister. Environment Minister Andrej Vizjak, a close aide of the Slovenian prime minister, could be on his way out after a junior partner in the minority government said it no longer supported him following statements he made in a leaked conversation with a corporate boss 14 years ago. Read more.

BUDAPEST. Hungary fixes gas price. The government will fix the price of 95 octane petrol and diesel at HUF480 (€1.34) per litre, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, Gergely Gulyás, announced on Thursday (11 November), Telex reported. Read more.

PRAGUE. Czechia stays off just transition path. Czechia has to phase out coal as soon as possible to meet European climate goals. However, the transition to a green economy is still far from becoming a reality. Read more.

LISBON. Portuguese environment minister: EU should not fund “unsafe” nuclear projects. The EU should not fund nuclear energy projects because they are unsafe, unsustainable, and cost a lot of money, Environment and Climate Action Minister, João Pedro Matos Fernandes, said at an event on the sidelines of the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow. Read more.

BRUSSELS. Commission bows to pressure to water down Green Deal ambitions in CAP plans. The European Commission’s ambition to tie the EU’s farming subsidies programme to the European Green Deal is set to fall victim to pressure from member states in a behind-closed-doors procedure. Read the full story.

BELGRADE. Climate Action Network awards Fossil of the Day Award to US, Australia and Serbia. The Climate Action Network (CAN) ranked Serbia third in its Fossil of the Day Award because of its big polluters. Read more.


News in brief

Oslo CCS project denied EU funding. The European Commission on Thursday (16 November) published the list of successful applicants for the first call of EU funding under the bloc’s Innovation Fund. Fortum Oslo Varme’s carbon capture project was not among the approved projects at this stage but officials said the project will continue nevertheless.

“I am disappointed by the rejection from the EU Innovation Fund. Carbon-neutral cities are a prerequisite for fulfilling the Paris Agreement, and to do this we must remove emissions from waste incineration,” said Victoria Marie Evensen, the vice mayor of Oslo. “This will not put an end to carbon capture for waste incineration in Oslo, but without support from the EU, we must now look at alternative solutions to fully finance the project,” said Jannicke Gerner Bjerkås, CCS director at Oslo Varme. Read previous EURACTIV coverage about the project here and here. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com).

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Hard pill to swallow. EU agriculture ministers accepted the new EU forest strategy, despite deep discontent in several countries about an alleged lack of balance between the role of forests in the economy and their role in tackling climate change. Ministers highlighted the essential role forests play in keeping a healthy environment and the role they can play in the transition to a carbon neutral world. They also emphasised the need for cooperation and constructive dialogue between countries, the Commission and industry – something several countries feel was lacking in the process of drafting the strategy.

The conclusions add that there needs to be a balance between forests’ environmental, social and economic roles, particularly when it comes to sustainable forest management. “Today’s conclusions reflect the need for all stakeholders to work together and adopt a balanced approach in order to come to terms with the unprecedented challenges facing our forests, while also protecting communities whose livelihoods depend on forest resources,” said Jože Podgoršek, Slovenian Minister for Agriculture. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Driving ahead with Fit for 55 climate package. The proposal for a carbon border levy, revision of CO2 standards for cars and revision of the land use and forestry (LULUCF) regulation should be signed off by the European Parliament by mid-summer, EURACTIV has learnt.

Alongside this, the Green Deal is a priority for the French presidency, according to a top MEP. That bodes well for some files heading into negotiations between the Parliament and EU countries under the Czech Republic’s presidency of EU countries. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

2022 dates for your diary:

CO2 standards for cars in environment committee:

  • 13 JANUARY. Consideration of draft report
  • 25 JANUARY. Deadline for amendments
  • 8 APRIL. Committee vote
  • MAY. Plenary vote

Carbon border adjustment mechanism in environment committee:

  • 2-3 FEBRUARY. Consideration of draft report 
  • 9 FEBRUARY. Deadline for amendments
  • 11-12 MAY. Committee vote
  • JUNE. Plenary vote

LULUCF in agriculture committee:

  • 25 JANUARY. Consideration of draft report
  • 31 JANUARY. Deadline for amendments
  • March/April. Committee vote

LULUCF in environment committee:

  • 26-27 JANUARY. Consideration of draft opinion
  • 3 FEBRUARY. Deadline for amendments
  • 28 APRIL. Committee vote

Opinions


Upcoming events

23 NOVEMBER. On the road to a greener economy in Kazakhstan – how can the EU help? Join the Energy Charter Treaty’s Urban Rusnak and speakers from the European Commission and the Economic and Social Committee for a debate on Kazakhstan’s energy transition. Programme and registration here. (Supported by the Republic of Kazakhstan).

8 DECEMBER. Energy poverty: how to reduce inequalities? Join Adela Tesarova, Head of Unit, Consumers, Local Initiatives and Just Transition, DG Energy, European Commission, Masha Smirnova, Campaign Manager European Green Deal, EUROCITIES and more  to discuss how addressing energy poverty can help reduce inequalities in the European Union and the role that Member States should play in protecting vulnerable citizens. Programme and registration here. (Supported by PKEE)

8 DECEMBER. EU taxonomy for sustainable activities – should nuclear energy be left out? Join Thomas Pellerin-Carlin from the Jacques Delors Institute and other speakers to discuss the role of nuclear power in the green transition. Programme and registration here. (Supported by REplanet)


On our radar

17 NOVEMBER: Deforestation and waste shipment proposals. The European Commission will propose its revision to the waste shipment regulation and a proposal on minimising the risk of imported deforestation.

2 DECEMBER: Energy Council. EU energy ministers will meet in early December in the second session since the Fit for 55 package was tabled. (meeting page). 

14 DECEMBER: Energy, climate, transport and nature protection package. Following the publication of its huge package of climate proposals in July, the European Commission is expected to table more energy-related files, including regulations on natural gas, and proposals on the circular economy. It will also put forward proposals on nature protection. See the full list here:

Climate and energy:

  • Reducing methane emissions in the energy sector
  • Revision of the third energy package for gas
  • Revision of the energy performance of Buildings Directive
  • Commission communication: Restoring sustainable carbon cycles
  • Council Recommendation to address the social and labour aspects of the climate transition

Efficient and green mobility package:

  • Revision of the Regulation on the trans-European transport network
  • Revision of the Directive on Intelligent Transport Systems
  • New EU urban mobility framework
  • Rail freight corridors initiative

Nature:

  • Protecting biodiversity: nature restoration targets
  • Improving environmental protection through criminal law

16-17 DECEMBER. EUROPEAN COUNCIL. EU leaders will meet once again and energy prices are back on the agenda. This time, however, it will be after the gas package has been tabled.

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