At a time when climate experts are urging drastic cuts to planet-warming releases, the European Union’s intention to include natural gas in a list of activities considered sustainable might stall its progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The initiative, which was agreed upon by European legislators on Wednesday, will allow certain natural gas infrastructure projects, including those in liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and natural gas power plants, to qualify as green investments. As a fossil fuel, natural gas warms the planet both when it is burned and when it escapes the atmosphere unburned.
It occurs at a time when customers are dealing with excruciatingly high energy prices and the continent is battling to maintain a consistent gas supply. Europe has been searching for alternatives to Russian energy as Russia, which provided approximately 40% of the EU’s gas before its invasion of Ukraine, has decreased the flow of gas to Europe and could make even more drastic cuts.
Professor of earth system science at Stanford University Rob Jackson declared, “This…makes sense only as a death knell for coal.” “If not, it’s perplexing. Gas use alone is causing up to 8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions year, and this cannot go on.
To achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the European Union has made a legally binding promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030. Furthermore, despite efforts to switch to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Europe lacks the necessary power infrastructure to transport electricity from wind- and solar-powered turbines and sunny solar farms.
Because it emits less carbon dioxide when burned than coal in a side-by-side comparison of power plants, natural gas has been marketed as a “bridge fuel.” However, climate specialists do not view it that way.
The luxury of using gas as a clean fuel is no longer available, according to Jackson. While cleaner than coal, it is still dirtier than the majority of other fuels that we use today.
Germany’s industrial lobby group, BDI, applauded the decision and urged increased funding for LNG import terminals and other gas infrastructure improvements.
Europe is trying to increase its LNG imports from nations like the United States, which has increased its exports to the continent but is unable to produce more LNG without massive, expensive development of its LNG terminals. Additionally, producing LNG requires a lot of energy: According to the Global Carbon Project, the United States Gulf Coast LNG export facilities’ 2020 emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent were comparable to those of Costa Rica.
Along the natural gas supply chain, there are significant escapes of methane, a gas that has a much greater potential to harm climatic stability than carbon dioxide. For instance, recent research found that the amount of methane seeping into the atmosphere in the Permian Basin of New Mexico was equal to 9% of the region’s gas production.
According to John Sterman, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Sustainability Initiative, “this is an extreme bald-faced attempt to greenwash.”
By 2035, gas-fired power stations would have to transition to lower-carbon fuels as part of the plan. But Sterman insisted that “the phrase that says it will only be considered green if it can convert to hydrogen or a renewable source of combustible gas by 2035” did not provide an adequate defense. “That will be in 13 years. In the interim, these plants would produce a considerable amount of greenhouse gases, aggravating climate change.
Since infrastructure is constructed to endure 30 or 40 years, the prospect of burning fossil fuels is considerably beyond the level that climate experts advise exists, which could result in a long-term increase in the severity of climate change.
Building such infrastructure also takes time. The strategy does not address the demands of Europeans who need to heat their homes this coming winter because it takes around four years to establish a new LNG facility.
However, using natural gas is still preferable to burning coal, oil, or tires, all of which are used in Europe, according to Julio Friedmann, a scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
In addition to going through a very trying time, Friedmann noted that Europe is also undergoing an energy shift. “Natural gas is currently cleaner than many alternatives.”
There are also more expedient options available than developing brand-new LNG facilities on the continent.
Germany, for instance, intends to import many floating LNG installations. That would increase the country’s access to natural gas without requiring long-term investment.
They require the supplies but prefer to prevent lock-in, according to Friedmann. “That makes sense.”
Additional pipeline gas is also being sought after from nearby neighbors. The European Union has pleaded with Qatar, Algeria, and Norway, which supply 20 to 25% of Europe’s gas, to supply more natural gas.
Natural gas is required for more than only generating power and heating houses. According to Friedmann, it’s also crucial for the production of steel, concrete, and fertilizer as well as feedstock. Currently, renewable energy cannot meet their needs.
The capacities of European transmission are currently severely constrained, according to Friedmann. The amount of land that can be used for renewable energy sources is now severely constrained.
The installation of carbon capture and storage technology on new natural gas infrastructure is just one of several actions that may be taken to lessen the impact on the climate, according to Friedmann.
But in order to significantly reduce demand, Sterman said, money would be better spent working to replace home natural gas systems with heat pumps or investing in making homes more energy-efficient.
Nobody wants tonnes of coal or m3 of natural gas, according to Sterman. “What people want and need is to have heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, and lights that turn on when they flip a switch… Efficiency is the fastest, safest, and least expensive approach to meet those requirements and wants, with very few unexpected negative effects, if any.
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