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EU’s Green Deal based on natural gas as ‘transitional energy’


Natural gas wins recognition as ‘transitional technology’ to climate neutrality

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) arrive at a press conference following a face-to-face EU summit, in Brussels, Belgium, 11 December 2020. [EPA-EFE/JOHANNA GERON]

The lower carbon intensity of natural gas – which produces half the emissions of coal when burned in power plants – and the emergence of new technologies like hydrogen are setting gas apart from other fossil fuels in the clean energy transition.

On Friday, the European Council, which brings together the EU’s 27 national leaders, adopted a new greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030: -55% from 1990 levels, up from the previous target of -40%.

In their conclusions, the leaders reaffirmed that it will be up to each member state “to decide on their energy mix and to choose the most appropriate technologies to achieve collectively the 2030 climate target, including transitional technologies such as gas.”

The explicit mention of gas is contentious. Gas advocates say it is ideally suited as a transition fuel for coal-reliant countries like Poland and Germany as they make decarbonisation their main priority. This is because it has a lower emissions intensity than other fossil fuels like coal: gas produces on average half the emissions of coal when burned into power plants.

But perhaps more importantly, the same infrastructure used for fossil gas could now be used in the future for new gas technologies such biomethane or hydrogen gas.

“With the current technology you can abate up to 90% of the CO2 emissions from gas, which is already a lot,” said Luca Giansanti, head of European government affairs at Italian energy company ENI. “Then you have decarbonised and low-carbon gas in the form of blue hydrogen. Technological improvement in the future could bring this percentage up to 100%,” he told a EURACTIV event last week.

“The switch from coal to gas is already underway, and through that, gas has been contributing a lot to the reduction of emissions all over Europe. Last year the contribution of gas to decarbonisation, together with renewables, has been impressive.”

Giansanti was referring to figures published at the beginning of the year, which showed that coal power generation had plunged by a record 24% in Europe last year. Half of that coal power capacity was replaced by renewables, and the other half by natural gas.

This partnership with renewables is key, Giansanti said, because renewable power sources like wind and solar are intermittent, dependent on when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. So some kind of currently available steady source of power will be needed in the short to medium term to partner with renewables to keep grids operational.

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