A fossil fuel that supports decarbonisation

Matúš Mišík
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science, Comenius University in Bratislava

The current spike in natural gas prices shifted the EUʼs climate and energy focus from the long-term issue of decarbonisation to the short-term issue of energy availability for households and enterprises. The crisis highlighted the importance of natural gas within the member statesʼ energy mixes and triggered a variety of solutions, such as increasing the intake of liquified natural gas from the international market or reversing the gas flow to tap into the main European underground storages (which, however, reached exceptionally low levels during 2021). This happened alongside discussions surrounding a list of sustainable energy technologies that support sustainability and qualify for the EUʼs financial support (so-called taxonomy). Although the definitive decision is, as of the writing of this text, not yet known, natural gas has been included on the Commissionʼs draft list. Indeed, natural gas can support decarbonisation within the EU, even though it is a fossil fuel, and its utilisation is connected to several issues the EU needs to prepare for.

The EU has set 2050 as the deadline for developing a carbon-neutral economy. During the period of almost three decades between now and 2050, the Union (as well as other regions and countries) will be decreasing the amount of fossil fuels in its energy mix, until it reaches a level at which they will produce only a minimal amount of carbon emissions that will be absorbed by the natural environment (so-called carbon sink). As the most polluting and replaceable (in electricity generation) fossil energy source, coal has been removed from the energy mixes of several EU countries, with almost all the other members setting a coal phase-out deadline. Similarly, a lot of effort has been devoted to finding a replacement for oil in transport, where it presents a major challenge. The recent surge in hydrogen-related discussion amplifies the shift towards alternative modes of transportation, heretofore fuelled especially by electric cars. However, in both electricity generation and transport (not only road, but also maritime) natural gas and its various forms are viewed as greener alternatives to more polluting energy sources – not to mention the role natural gas plays in heating and industry.

While there is a lot of discussion on how to (almost) phase out natural gas from the EU’s energy mix – necessary in the long-term in order to reach carbon neutrality – natural gas will be needed in the transition period as it can smoothen the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. The concept of natural gas as a bridging fuel has received a lot of criticism due to (among others) the possibility of lock-in effect. The idea of a bridging fuel claims that natural gas presents an intermediary step between an energy system based on heavily polluting, finite fossil fuels and renewable sources of energy with a much smaller footprint. Those critical of this perspective claim that there is a risk of sustainable alternatives (i.e., renewables) being locked out by well-established fossil fuels (in this case, natural gas), which, in turn, will be locked-in in the system thanks to existing infrastructure and overall convenience. Therefore, critics oppose investing in the development of fossil fuel infrastructure and support rapid changes of energy systems. Contrary to this, the Commission has shown support for future investments into the natural gas sector by including natural gas into the taxonomy.

The rapid and complex shift of the energy system towards renewables can be accompanied by many negative externalities that can lead to questioning the energy transition itself – as the German case suggests. Moreover, the German energy transition points towards the importance of natural gas as an energy source that can support the inclusion of renewables into existing energy systems by providing solutions to current challenges connected to renewables, such as electricity storage or grid balancing. Natural gas – a fossil fuel – can thus be viewed as the main propellent of the transition towards renewables and decarbonisation.

As the current development on the natural gas market suggests, this process will inevitably create problems in different areas, both domestic and foreign in nature. The main issue outside the EU concerns natural gas supplies from countries that are dependent on revenues from energy export. A lower EU demand will translate into lower revenues, which will be unable to support the social policies these countries use to gain support from their population. This can create geopolitical pressures resulting in supply interruptions and similar issues which have proven to be part of the energy exporters’ toolbox in the past. Domestically, the main challenge will be to find a compromise among the member states on natural gas. We can already observe the emergence of coalitions among the member states and, based on past experience (in nuclear energy, for example), we can expect the individual statesʼ positions to strengthen as their energy mixes start to diverge due to decarbonisation.

This work was supported by Slovak Research and Development Agency Grants No. APVV-20-0012. The author would like to thank Nada Kujundžić for the language editing.

E-mail: matus.misik@uniba.sk

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