Natural gas bashing is trendy, but is it constructive?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Pipes at gas compressor station in the eastern Slovak town of Velke Kapusany, near the border with Ukraine, Slovakia, 02 September 2014. [EPA/FILIP SINGER]

Surely, natural gas, too, will have to be phased out over time, so why not skip this phase and move straight to wind and solar? The idea sounds enticing, but upon closer examination, it is counterproductive if not self-defeating, argues Olga Bielkova.

Olga Bielkova is the director of government and international affairs at GTSOU, the Gas TSO of Ukraine.

When it comes to the energy transition, we can’t allow perfect, in the words of Voltaire, to become the enemy of the good. The stewardship of our planet demands that we take concrete steps towards a carbon-free future, and we make them now. We must remember, however, that neither the pathway nor the pace of change will be the same everywhere.

History, geography, stages of economic development vary across Europe. For many countries, natural gas offers the shortest track to decarbonisation that is both affordable and immediately implementable. I am convinced that a dogmatic approach to climate preservation is often unhelpful, while flexibility and pragmatism will win the day.

If we draw parallels with the COVID19 crisis, it was clear from the start that mass vaccination and eventual herd immunity is the ultimate objective. But the world didn’t shun the search for intermediate treatment options, such as corticosteroid drugs or the use of oxygen to care for the sick.

Those remedies made a huge difference and saved many lives. Switching the entire energy system to renewable sources is the ultimate goal, but it does not justify an utter rejection of real and effective interim solutions.

Phaseout of coal is the highest priority and the lowest hanging fruit in our journey towards a carbon-free future. Consider Ukraine, for example; my own country still relies on coal for 30% of its electricity generation. Replacing it with natural gas can yield a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without the risk of grid destabilisation.

Surely, natural gas, too, will have to be phased out over time, so why not skip this phase and move straight to wind and solar? The idea sounds enticing, but upon closer examination, it is counterproductive if not self-defeating.

In 2019 non-hydroelectric renewable energy in Ukraine constituted less than 2% of total electricity generation. If we focus exclusively in this area, we will miss an opportunity to make a bigger impact.

A recent study by GIE looked at the existing gas infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe and the role it could play in the transition towards climate neutrality.

It concluded that the coal-to-gas switch would be a pivotal intermediate step for the EU member states covered by the research: Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Needless to say, the level of economic development among those countries exceeds Ukraine’s. But even for the more prosperous nations, discontinuing the use of coal has proven a challenging task. In 2018, coal-based CO2 production from the said ten countries was roughly equivalent to the overall emissions generated in France and Spain.

'Low hanging fruit': Eastern EU states eye existing gas network for hydrogen

Existing gas networks should be repurposed to transport hydrogen and help boost demand, said Michał Kurtyka, Polish Minister of Climate and Environment at an online event about hydrogen in Central and Eastern Europe on Friday (12 February).

Without a doubt, decarbonised gases will complement and eventually replace natural gas, but it will take several decades rather than a few years. The ten countries plan to integrate the existing gas infrastructure into their renewable energy systems and, thus, reduce the need for large investments into electricity grids – on both transmission and distribution levels.

This pragmatic approach is to be applauded. The flexibility and multidimensionality of our energy systems underwrite their resilience. Let us also not forget that the gas transit companies are significant employers, contributions to national budgets, and guarantors of energy security.

Looking across the Atlantic, we could consider a study by Saul Griffith and Sam Calisch titled Mobilising for a Zero Carbon America. It calls for the immediate and total electrification of everything – a policy that can bring about a paradigm shift in which climate preservation becomes achievable.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the electrification imperative is such that natural gas is often the most practical and effective solution. The demand for energy will continue to grow, while carbon emissions will have to start coming down.

Even the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recognises the importance of natural gas on the journey towards full decarbonisation.

In a preview of the 2021 World Energy Transitions Outlook: 1.5°C Pathway published in March this year, IRENA concedes: “Natural gas is the largest remaining source of fossil fuel in 2050 […] Around 70% is consumed in power/heat plants and blue hydrogen production. The other relevant use is in industry.”

Beyond electricity generation, natural gas has many uses in the chemical industry, residential heating, metallurgy, and transport. The versatility that wind and solar energy lacks. In countries such as Ukraine, which boast extensive gas transit networks, it makes both economic and environmental sense to leverage it to the fullest.

The optimisation of infrastructure use is in and of itself an essential piece of the climate puzzle.

Against this backdrop, it is encouraging to see the softening of the EU position on the inclusion of natural gas projects under the umbrella of green finance. The debate on climate taxonomy brings to the fore the tension between idealism and pragmatism.

To deliver on the EU Green Deal objectives, the EIB, EBRD, World Bank, and the broader network of international financial institutions should adopt a less categorical approach to accommodate a wide range of climate solutions that best fit individual countries.

One size seldom fits all, and a more nuanced policy is needed, especially with respect to the Eastern Partnership countries. If unlimited investment were available, there would be no need for prioritisation.

But in the emerging markets, it’s all about allocating scarce capital to the projects that fit the local context, have the highest chance of success, and offer the biggest impact.

Aspirational rhetoric has a role to play, but the policy must be grounded in empiricism and rationality. Offhanded and careless dismissal of natural gas on seemingly ideological, rather than scientific, grounds is wrong.

In fact, if we don’t intensify the use of gas in the short-to-medium term as a way to phase out coal and speed up the electrification of the global economy, we would be undermining the decarbonisation agenda.

Often, carbon fuels are presented as an all-or-nothing choice. That doesn’t help us address the problem of a warming climate in all of its complexity. Let us instead focus on concrete and implementable steps that we can take right now.

Fossil gas 'has no viable future', EU’s Timmermans says

Europe has set a clear goal for full decarbonisation by 2050, with renewables-based electricity set to become the dominant energy carrier, and that means fossil gas will have “only a marginal role” in the long run, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said on Thursday (25 March). 

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