Bridge or brake? Risks associated with natural gas use and why a phase-out is so challenging

Dr. Hanna Brauers, Postdoc at Europa-Universität Flensburg, writes about her recent article ‘Natural gas as a barrier to sustainability transitions? A systematic mapping of the risks and challenges’ published in Energy Research & Social Science, and why a debate about natural gas risks is especially important in times of conflicts with Russia.

In the EU, natural gas has been in the media spotlight since the winter of 2021/22. The reporting revolves around the escalating gas price crisis in the European Union, smouldering conflicts with Russia and the debate on whether or not more natural gas infrastructure should be built. The negative effects on the climate associated with natural gas are so far little discussed.

The risks of natural gas use

This recently published paper highlights the risks of natural gas for sustainability transitions, identified through a systematic literature mapping. By collating the published prior work in this new and dynamic field of research, the current state of knowledge is highlighted. The paper identifies the risks and policy challenges that= natural gas poses for ambitious sustainability transitions. The results underline that natural gas use can reduce greenhouse gas emissions only to a very limited extent and only in the short term. Natural gas use is therefore not compatible with achieving long-term climate goals. Natural gas poses a high climate risk, especially due to the associated methane emissions.

Furthermore, there are several technical and economic risks associated with natural gas. These include the risks that the expansion of natural gas will reduce the expansion of renewable energies, the emergence of stranded assets and lock-in effects of infrastructure. Lock-in here means that once investments are made in natural gas, it becomes more difficult to switch to other technologies. Because of the long lifespan of many infrastructures such as power plants, pipelines or heating systems, an investment decision in such infrastructures locks in their future use for the long term. Those who are already dependent on this infrastructure would be disadvantaged by a change. Lock in effects exist not only in relation to the infrastructure, but also through related behaviours and discourses.

Behavioural lock-ins exist, for example, for consumers who have become accustomed to the functioning and comfort of their gas heating, but also for the behaviour of companies that are adapted to centralised energy markets and combustion processes. Discourses revolve around narratives such as “bridge technology” or “energy security”. As soon as behaviour patterns and discourses have been cemented that make natural gas appear to have no alternative – for example, that without natural gas a secure heat and power supply cannot be guaranteed – these also act as lock-in effects.

All the risks associated with natural gas result in various political challenges: Among other things, the lock-ins make it more difficult to achieve climate targets, and resistance from those who oppose a reduction must be addressed. There is very little data available on the actual methane emissions of individual plants and thus also of entire countries. In addition, there are hardly any standards that ensure that methane leakage is reduced and, in general, there are many institutional blockades that stand in the way of a reduction in natural gas use.

In summary, these lock-in effects can lead to the continued use of natural gas severely jeopardising the energy transition and climate protection in the coming decades. New investments in natural gas can lead to unnecessarily high costs or even to climate protection targets not being met in the first place.

These insights make it clear that the key question is no longer whether natural gas consumption should be reduced, but how this can be implemented – just as it was done with the coal phase-out.

Despite its high relevance, there is so far very little research on how natural gas delays sustainability transitions and, consequently, on how to avert this obstacle. Given the very slow progress in phasing out coal, it is to be expected that the reduction of natural gas use will not be an easy and fast process either. The debate in science and politics must therefore urgently turn to the question of how natural gas use can be reduced.

The diversion via natural gas towards a climate-neutral energy supply will drive up the technical and social costs of the energy transition. Reduction plans need clear political targets – as for example in the Dutch heating sector, where the natural gas phase-out has already been decided -, detailed phase-out plans and instruments to steer the phase-out process. Identifying lock-in mechanisms can contribute to a better understanding of transition processes and, on this basis, facilitate the development of (policy) strategies to steer and accelerate the phase-out.

The current conflicts with Russia are illustrating how quickly debates can change: While natural gas was until recently mostly discussed as providing energy security for the electricity and heat sector, it is now being framed as a major security threat. That security threat can only be solved by a rapid expansion of renewable energies. It remains to be seen how the Russia-Ukraine conflict evolves and what that means for EU natural gas supplies. Due to the renewed attention to the geopolitical risks of natural gas, there is now an impetus to also discuss other risks related to natural gas, that could be used to accelerate the planned reduction of natural gas use.

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