Is gas green?
By Somini Sengupta
The European Union has an ambitious climate law to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030.
That’s a huge cut, and it raises a crucial question: How much, and for how long, will the 27-country bloc rely on gas to achieve that goal, and how quickly it will pivot away from all fossil fuels?
Natural gas, more accurately described as methane gas or fossil gas, produces lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal, but much more than wind and solar.
So should gas be called “green?” That’s exactly what the EU’s executive branch has proposed.
The measure comes up for a vote in Parliament on Wednesday, and it’s more than a simple question of labeling. If the proposal passes, said Matina Stevis-Gridneff, the Times bureau chief in Brussels, it means European governments, companies and banks will be able to subsidize or funnel cheap loans to gas projects.
Gas currently accounts for a quarter of electricity across the European Union and nearly all of its heat. Most of that gas comes from Russia, but European policymakers are scrambling to get gas from elsewhere, including the United States, in order to wean the continent from Russian fuel.
Beyond the immediate political decision facing European lawmakers, gas faces a reckoning: How much should the world rely on gas, for how long, and who should get to burn that gas? Which way wealthy, industrialized Europe goes this week will no doubt have a bearing on other countries.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, says that gas is a low-carbon fuel, which is correct when compared with coal. The commission says it would closely monitor gas projects and allow banks and governments to offer them cheaper loans.
But not everyone is buying that.
A broad coalition of European lawmakers says the move is counterproductive and goes against the substance of Europe’s commitments to carbon neutrality. There’s wide opposition to the proposal to classify gas, as well as nuclear power, as green energy.
In fact, the Commission’s ability to get the blessing of Parliament on Wednesday is hanging in the balance. The legislation was thought to be 20 or so votes short of the majority it needs to pass.
Opponents want Europe to double down on the expansion of renewable energy sources instead.
“Everyone knows by now that we should get rid of any incentives that lead to more fossil gas exploration,” said Bas Eickhout, an EU Parliament member who represents an alliance of Green and regional parties. “By labeling fossil gas ‘green’ the EU sends a catastrophic message to the private sector and the rest of the world that gas would be just as legitimate as renewables.”
The measure would allow the European Union as well as individual European governments and the private sector to rally behind new gas pipelines and import liquefied gas from overseas immediately.
Russia has deftly used its gas as leverage against Europe. It has been reducing its gas deliveries to the continent over the past two weeks, prompting Germany to bring coal back into its energy mix and contemplate the rationing of electricity. European policymakers are increasingly making the case that this proposal will enable them to quickly get the cash together to build up more gas-based energy projects to reduce their dependency on Russia.
European policymakers are being quite blunt about this choice.
“The overriding strategic decision is to wean ourselves off Russian oil and gas,” Frans Timmermans, the EU’s vice president for energy and climate, said in May. “We cannot be dependent on Russian energy supplies.”
The debate over gas is not just about whether there’s room for gas in a net-zero future. It’s about who gets to produce those emissions.
Africa faces a huge demand for new energy sources. Several countries there have vast gas reserves as well. Should they be able to develop their own resources for their own industrial growth?
For now, what we’ve seen is something else: European countries courting African countries to send their liquefied gas on ships to heat and power European homes.