24 march 2015

Energy union strategy a 'battle' over future EU energy mix

Written by Brook Riley in Parliament Magazine 24 March 2015

Despite strong industry lobbying, gas - like all other fossil fuels - is on the road to extinction, argues Brook Riley.

The international energy agency estimates that we are heading for a 4-6 degrees centigrade increase in global temperatures by the end of the century. The renowned US economist Jeremy Rifkin warns that this could lead to a so-called 'extinction event'. It's a terrifying prospect.

In the long-term it's clear that fossil fuels will eventually be completely replaced with a combination of energy efficiency measures and renewables. But as the British economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out, "in the long run we are all dead".

What matters is to make the switch fast enough to limit the worst effects of climate change.

Enter the gas lobby, which is fighting a nasty rear-guard action to slow down Europe's energy transition. It's main tactic? To look good in comparison to coal.

Associations like Eurogas and Gas Naturally now constantly stress the importance of replacing coal with gas in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Their 'clean by comparison' tactic is paying off. It is ironic that the EU's energy union strategy unveiled last month was born out of a desire to end Europe's gas dependence, but is in fact putting gas in prime position.

At the European council last week, EU leaders blustered about more transparent gas contracts with Russia, thereby sidelining renewables and energy efficiency. It was a massive struggle just to get a reference to the importance of efficiency in reducing energy dependence included in the official conclusions.

Part of the explanation for this is that the gas lobby has cleverly built itself a dominant position in Brussels' biggest renewable energy associations.

As British media reported earlier in the year, big power companies dominate the boards of EWEA and EPIA (the two leading wind and solar associations), steer the working group discussions, and contribute heavily to their budgets. Renewables advocates have become effectively muzzled.

It's deeply worrying. But there are signs that the gas lobby has gone too far, and will end up being its own worst enemy.

Last week, Francois-Regis Mouton of Gas Naturally wrote that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will come too late to prevent climate change.

The significance of this comment should not be underestimated. If he was intending to drive another nail in coal's coffin, it backfired as without CCS, how can any fossil fuel portray itself as a sustainable energy source?

Meanwhile, the coal lobby is striking back with, Andrew Mackenzie the CEO of BHP Billiton - one of the world's largest mining organisations - denouncing what he called a "marketing ploy" to call gas cleaner than coal. "Come on" he argued, "The last time I looked there was plenty of carbon in methane".

My hope is that this fossil-fuel faction infighting will accelerate Europe's energy transition. European governments would be foolish to waste hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money replacing coal with gas. It would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. It would be far better to fully prioritise energy efficiency and renewables.

"Debate on the energy union strategy as a fight about Europe's future energy mix where only the fittest can survive. It's high time we realised that gas, like all other fossil fuels, is on the road to extinction"

The good news is that the European parliament is already showing the way. Last year, MEPs twice called for 40 per cent energy savings by 2030 and 30 per cent renewables. This could mean emissions cuts of up to 54 per cent.

In the year of the Paris climate summit, this level of ambition needs to be backed up by solid action plans on the same scale.

More and more, I'm seeing debate on the energy union strategy as a fight about Europe's future energy mix where only the fittest can survive. It's high time we realised that gas, like all other fossil fuels, is on the road to extinction.
About the author

Brook Riley is a climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe

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