Is gas green?
LONDON — The European Union has an ambitious climate law to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent 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 European Union’s executive branch has proposed. It’s also what I want to discuss in today’s newsletter, so I reached out to Matina Stevis-Gridneff, the Times bureau chief in Brussels.
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, Matina said, 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 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.
What are the arguments for and against?
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.
Officials call this a pragmatic approach. “It is also necessary to have stable sources to accelerate the transition toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” the commission said when it introduced the proposal last year.
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. By Matina’s last count, the legislation was 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, a prominent member of the E.U. Parliament who represents an alliance of Green and regional parties. “By labeling fossil gas ‘green’ the E.U. sends a catastrophic message to the private sector and the rest of the world that gas would be just as legitimate as renewables.”
Would the E.U. measure reduce reliance on Russia?
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 European Union’s vice president for energy and climate, told Matina and me in an interview in late May at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We cannot be dependent on Russian energy supplies.”
Should history’s big polluters, like Europe, get to use gas at all?
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. So part of the global argument over gas is who should get to expand fossil fuel production, and for what purpose.
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? There’s a debate within Africa about this. Expect to read more about that in future newsletters.
For now, what we’ve seen is something else: European countries courting African countries to send its liquefied gas on ships to heat and power European homes.
Essential news from The Times
Cities and states step up: As climate action stalls at the national level, local action has become even more crucial to fight climate change. Communities are rising to the task.
Corporations to foot the bill: A landmark law in California requires plastic makers to pay for recycling and work to reduce or eliminate the manufacturing of single-use packaging.
An unfolding calamity: In many parts of the world fuel costs have risen even more sharply than in the United States, and the ensuing misery is much more acute.
Less U.S. leverage: President Biden’s weakened position at home makes it difficult for the United States to persuade other nations to take decisive climate action.
A lesson from the E.P.A. ruling: When Congress struggles to pass legislation, the Supreme Court becomes more powerful. Climate action is a case in point.
Two Americas: On climate change, abortion, gun rights and more, the country’s Northeast and West Coast are moving in the opposite direction from its midsection and the Southeast.
Offshore drilling: The Biden administration’s new plan for oil and gas projects off the coast allows for some new lease sales. It’s likely to anger both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry.
Before you go: A test of endurance gets even tougher
The Tour Divide, a bike race from the Canadian Rockies to the U.S. border with Mexico, has always been a test of fortitude. But extreme weather is making it much more dangerous. Along the 2,700-mile route, cyclists frequently face flash floods, landslides, driving winds and wildfires. “I feel like anything can happen,” said Sofiane Sehili, a racer from Paris who won this year’s tour. “So, yes, definitely climate change. You can see it on this race.”
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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