The European Union has been bigging up its 2050 climate strategy lately. Next week it will set out how the EU can meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and keep global temperature rises below 1.5oc. The announcement is in response to the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shows that keeping below 1.5c will require deep and urgent emissions cuts. So can the gas industry, whose primary product is fossil fuels – the very thing driving climate change – really be part of the solution? It certainly hopes so.
The gas industry is currently hyping so-called ‘renewable gas’ and its low carbon potential as their ticket to addressing climate change. But the industry hype does not live up to reality: this newfound enthusiasm for renewable gas is really an attempt to paint the industry green and keep their business model – and their publicly-subsidised infrastructure – intact.
If created from truly sustainable, renewable sources, the gases industry claims it can create (hydrogen from excess renewable electricity or biomethane from sustainably-sourced biomass), would still be in incredibly short supply even by 2050. Moreover, producing biomethane unsustainably could lead to the same land-grabs and competition with food crops seen when the EU tried to stimulate liquid biofuel production. So while small potential quantities of renewable gas may be suitable for a few hard-to-decarbonise industrial activities or for local heat and electricity generation, they will fall far short of projected 2050 gas demand.
Gas companies are fully aware of this. In reality industry’s core vision is about pumping conventional and unconventional fossil gas for the foreseeable future, with some small renewable gas capacity giving them a cover of sustainability. Also included under the umbrella of supposed sustainability is what industry calls 'decarbonised' or ‘low carbon’ gas, which is fossil gas that in the future will possibly – through unproven, experimental and extremely expensive technology – have its CO2 emissions captured (known as carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS). Leaving aside the dubious future of CCS, the fact remains that by 2050 fossil gas would still account for around 90 per cent of gas consumption.
This spells disaster not just for the climate, but also for communities and ecosystems all along the gas supply chain – from fracking sites in Lancashire to the gas fields of the Niger Delta. So-called 'renewable' gas and its ‘low carbon’ bedfellows are a dangerous distraction, a false solution engineered by the gas industry to keep itself in business but utterly inconsistent with the “rapid and far-reaching transition” demanded by the IPCC.
Rather than fall for the gas lobby’s myths (see below), the EU should be planning how to wind the industry down in a way that protects workers. Yet as long as it has such as strong grip over policy-making, such forward-thinking ideas remain an impossibility. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and nor will the fossil fuel industry. Therefore in order to ensure climate policy making is in the interest of all of us rather than being dictated by narrow vested interests, the EU’s 2050 climate strategy should introduce a firewall to protect EU and national level decision-makers from gas industry lobbyists.
The truth about so-called renewable gas
1) It’s convenient for industry to talk about renewable gas alongside green, clean, decarbonised, low-carbon, or just plain ‘natural’ gas, mixing definitions. This hides the true impact and also sneaks fossil gas under the ‘renewable’ label. Truly renewable gas is hydrogen produced with electrolysis using excess electricity from wind, sun and waves; or locally produced and small-scale biogas made from sustainable biomass.
2) Industry’s version of renewable gas is unlikely to be carbon neutral when you examine how it’s actually produced, and could even drive deforestation and land-grabbing.
3) The potential for sustainable renewable gas production in the EU is a fraction of what industry claims, and will never allow us to substitute current fossil gas use with renewable gas. According to the International Clean Council for Transportation, renewable gas is estimated to meet just seven per cent of today’s gas demand by 2050.
4) Industry claims any non-renewable gas demand will be ‘decarbonised’ in the future, but the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology needed is still not technically or commercially available.
5) In search for new markets the gas industry is pushing for (renewable) gas to be used in transport. But transport is electrifying, and this unnecessary push has been labelled “an unrealistic attempt to greenwash the use of gas” by NGO Transport & Environment.
6) Europe is unlikely to sustainably produce significant quantities of renewable gas, so despite industry claims, it will not provide energy security. Either the EU keeps its neo-colonial mantle and imports so-called renewable gas instead of fossil gas or, more likely, imports more fossil gas claiming to be able to decarbonise it.
7) Developing renewable and decarbonised gases is expensive, despite industry promises of savings. And if they turn out to be a dangerous distraction that slows efforts to tackle climate change, the EU’s current bill of €14bn per year to deal with its impacts will rise dramatically – paid for by taxpayers, not the gas industry.