Natural gas: Part of the problem or the solution?

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

Greening gas is neither a matter of fashion nor a wishful thinking, it is a fantastic challenge to make the energy transition happen, writes Jean-François Carenco. [Equinor / Ole Jørgen Bratland]

When the G20 Energy Ministers meet in Japan, they will stick to the old mantra that gas is a bridge fuel and is needed for the energy transition. This is not good news for the climate, writes Luca Bergamaschi.

Luca Bergamaschi is Senior Associate at the climate change think tank E3G, Research Associate at the Istituto Affari Internazionali and former G7/G20 Advisor to the Italian Prime Minister’s Office.

This week G20 Energy Ministers are gathering in Japan, but it is far from certain that they will be able to reach consensus for a shared final communiqué. The conflicting geopolitics of natural gas and climate change are at the heart of this impasse.

Following an established pattern since President Trump took office, the G20 and G7 meetings have become a highly contentious space driven by the anti-climate, pro-fossil fuels position of the United States.

While the United States is isolated in opposing the Paris climate agreement, other fossil fuel producing countries are happy to see progress on decarbonisation stalling. This was confirmed recently by Russia which publicly declared decarbonisation as a key threat to national security. Understandably so: without the revenue from oil and gas exports, Putin’s control of Russia and influence in the world could not be sustained.

The potential instability and cascade effects that would follow the collapse of Putin’s power are feared by many, especially in Europe. This is why European leaders are keen to provide reassurance to Russia that Europe will need its gas for decades to come. Merkel’s ongoing support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is perhaps the best example.

This sort of “geopolitical contract” is seen by the Europeans, in particular Germany and Italy, as a way to manage the relation with Russia and maintain stability. In practice, Europe is willing to continue to provide Putin with its biggest financial and political leverage even if he uses it to block democratic progress in Russia, meddle in national affairs of other countries and drive ever greater fragmentation and tension on the international stage.

When the G20 Energy Ministers meet in Japan, they will pretend to stay away from geopolitics. Instead, they will agree on the old mantra that gas is a bridge fuel and is needed for the energy transition. This will keep oil and gas companies happy and provides renewed confidence for global investment in new exploration and production of natural gas as well as LNG infrastructure.

This is not good news for the climate. Today, natural gas is the world’s fastest growing fossil fuel and a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for around 20% of the G20’s CO2 emissions. In those countries less dependent on coal, such as the UK and Italy, gas is already the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the electricity and heat sectors.

The IEA central scenario, which is one of the main tools that inform investment and policy choices, expects gas consumption to increase by 45% by 2040. What is often missed in the communication of this scenario, however, is that this pathway would lead to 3 degrees of global warming, and climate change impacts would become unmanageable. This is why the IEA is under growing pressure to rethink its approach to the design and communication of its energy scenarios.

In contrast, to meet the safer Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees without overshooting, all sectors of the G20 economies must reach net-zero emissions around 2050. For natural gas, this means that its consumption must decrease by 74% by 2050 according to the safest IPCC mitigation scenario that does not rely on unproven negative emissions technology.

Overinvesting in new gas infrastructure risks creating stranded assets or locking the world into a heavily gas-dependant energy system whose emissions would overshoot the critical target of 1.5 degrees. Avoiding overshoot is critical because it lowers the risk of breaching irreversible ecological thresholds. For example, overshooting 1.5 degrees could trigger multi-meter sea level rise over hundreds of years due to instability in Antarctica and the Arctic; and the coral reefs and other marine and coastal ecosystems might reach extinction. Also, getting back to lower levels of warming after an overshoot is extremely difficult, and as a result we may never get back to safer levels.

To reduce climate risk and responsibly address concerns over global and intergenerational equity, Europe must reach net-zero well before 2050. Against the European geopolitical rhetoric in support of gas, the reality is that the European economy is changing fast and is already reducing its dependence on gas, in particular thanks to energy efficiency and renewables which are cutting gas demand far quicker than expected. Technologies and solutions such as demand side response and transmission cables are already more efficient and cost effective for balancing the grid and providing flexibility services. The costs of battery storage are falling rapidly and will soon be more competitive than gas-based solutions.

Gas has reached the end of the bridge and we must start planning the transition away from it in parallel to the transition away from coal. Different regions face different gas choices, but the common aims must be to avoid overinvesting in new gas infrastructure, to give priority to zero-carbon alternatives, and to build a carbon-free society for all, including for those who still lack energy access.

The G20 collectively will not be able to make substantial progress under the current political circumstances, but European leaders must think carefully what they promise and which camp they back. They can and must demonstrate that a transition away from gas is possible, and support other countries doing so.

Cañete sees gas as ‘a bridge’ to reach EU’s clean energy goals

Natural gas will remain “an important component” of the EU’s energy mix for decades to come, but its role will evolve by the mid-century to become a “complement” to wind and solar power, the EU’s energy chief has said in comments that has ruffled feathers in the industry.

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