The road to 2050 should be fossil gas pipelines free

Energy transition

The transmission grid operators still assume, in a recently published draft scenario, that the EU’s gas demand by mid of the century will be roughly two thirds higher than the demand that the European Commission considers for reaching the 1.5°C objective. With this, anyone can easily justify all kinds of fossil gas projects that will not bring us to Paris targets as quickly as we need.

This op-ed was originally published by Euractiv on 2 March 2020.

By Wendel Trio, Director, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe

The EU is allegedly planning its journey to an energy system with net-zero emissions, but it is allowing fossil gas to be part of the trip, as EU legislation charges the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas (ENTSOG) and for Electricity (ENTSO-E) to draw the Ten Year Network Development Plan (TYNDP). 

Among others, this masterplan of European energy infrastructure identifies the need for the privileged Projects of Common Interest (PCIs). Last week only, Members of the European Parliament were asked to endorse 55 fossil gas projects, as part of the fourth PCI list. Getting the PCI label means gas project developers can expect several hundreds of millions of EU subsidies. If all these gas pipelines and terminals would be operated during their average lifetime of more than 50 years, they would not only deepen the EU’s dependency on fossil fuel imports, but they would also keep the bloc on a level of greenhouse gas emissions that drives us far beyond what is acceptable on our route to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. 

All such scenarios prepared by the transmission grid operators feature very high shares of gas in our future energy mix. Does that make any sense at all? No, not at a time when the European Investment Bank and private investors pass fossil fuel industries, when even leading gas producers such as the Netherlands plan a gradual phase-out of fossil gas. 

Though these scenarios are branded as Paris compatible, they suggest making a number of unnecessary and costly detours, instead of just leapfrogging from coal to renewables. In all of the new assumptions, a big quantity of the remaining carbon emissions would have to be removed from the atmosphere through technologies (such as carbon capture and air capture). While these technologies play a key role in the scenarios, they are far from being operational. They actually might never remove any emissions. More, these scenarios largely ignore the potential of demand response, of different storage technologies and of ancillary services provided by renewables themselves. 

Europe’s energy transition needs to speed up, but the current infrastructure planning is on the wrong track. Energy infrastructure planning needs to look beyond adding pipelines and cables. In the current TYNDP process, the benefits of renewables and energy savings remain underestimated. CAN Europe has urged Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson to quickly align the infrastructure planning to the net-zero emissions target and to the European Green Deal. Without more variation in the proposed conservative pathways, without an independent assessment of the costs of different fossil and non-fossil gases, policy makers cannot get the information they need for steering future investments to the right direction. If the TYNDP always leads us to gas, we risk being locked into superfluous gas networks. 

Plans need to integrate a 100% renewable energy scenario that fully taps the potential of energy savings. A swift revision of the trans-European energy infrastructure (TEN-E) Regulation by the end of 2020 is a first opportunity to fix this.