Each year, the EU uses significantly more natural gas than it produces, which has become especially problematic given the current Russia-Ukraine crisis and the EU’s dependency on Russia for natural gas. In 2020, which is the most recent year with data on EU natural gas usage, according to Eurostat, the EU used 15,182 thousand terajoules (GCV) of natural gas. This marked a 2.7% decrease from 2019, in which it used 15,611.1 GCV. However, aside from between 2012-2014 when the EU’s natural gas usage sharply increased and then decreased, over much of the past decade the EU’s natural gas usage has steadily risen.
This increase in natural gas usage, along with an increase in the EU’s renewable energy resources, may correlate with the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions that occurred in the EU between 2018 and 2020. Yet, given that the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions rose between 2015-2018 when the EU’s natural gas usage was also increasing, there is no direct correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and natural gas usage in the EU. If natural gases are used in addition to greenhouse gases, instead of in place of greenhouse gases, this of course only causes greenhouse gas emissions to rise even more.
Currently, the EU is primarily an importer of natural gases, much of which goes to the building sector. According to Eurostat, in 2020 the EU produced only 1,899.4 GCV of natural gases and imported 24,633.4 GCV of natural gases, making it 83.5% energy dependent on the countries it received imports from. 43.4% of these imports came from Russia, 20% came from Norway, 12% came from Algeria, 5.5% came from the United Kingdom, 5% came from the United States and the remaining 14% came from other countries. Therefore, Russia has been the EU’s primary provider of natural gas, demonstrating one of the predominant reasons that the EU has recognized it needs to find energy sources it can rely on outside of natural gas.
The fact that natural gas also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is another reason why the EU is trying to pivot away from using natural gas. In recent proposals from December 2021, the European Commission stated that it is looking to shift away from using natural gas to using renewable energy and low-carbon gases, such as biomethane and hydrogen. The EU is working to achieve this goal by creating a market for hydrogen and implementing new rules that will make it easier for renewable and low-carbon gases to access the EU’s existing gas grid. The EU also wishes to establish a new EU legal framework that requires higher standard reporting, measurement and verification of methane emissions, which natural gases contain significant amounts of. Additionally, the EU has more broadly posited that it wants to completely phase out natural gas usage by 2049.
However, phasing out natural gas will not be an easy task for the EU. It currently uses over 400 billion cubic meters of gaseous fuels each year, 95% of which are natural gas, in order to meet approximately 25% of its energy needs. Given that low-carbon gases only represent 5% of the gaseous fuels that the EU currently uses, and the EU does not have the renewable energy resources necessary to provide the electricity and heat production needed to power its Member States, there are many questions surrounding how effective low-carbon gases will truly be in replacing natural gas.
There is also the issue that the EU’s current policy states that power plants burning natural gas can be labelled as generators of green energy, which means they can be considered sustainable investments. The EU’s policy specifically delineates that gas power plants that acquire a permit by December 31, 2030 and emit greenhouse gases that are equivalent to 270g of CO2 for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity will be labelled as sustainable. While the EU has also stated that firms operating these plants must submit a plan demonstrating how they will completely shift from natural gas to low-carbon fuels or renewables by the end of 2035, the fact that natural gas emissions in significant quantities will be allowed until 2035 has evoked much criticism. The EU has justified this policy by stating that it will help coal-dependent EU countries switch to natural gas in the short-term, resulting in lowered emissions, but there is the larger issue that all future energy generation in the EU must be under 100g of CO2 for each kWh of electricity in order for the EU to meet its Paris Agreement commitments. Allowing power plants burning natural gas to be labeled as sustainable investments is also problematic in that it may divert investment away from renewable and low-carbon gas solutions.
Thus, while the EU’s statement that it plans on transitioning from natural gas to renewable energy and low-carbon gases aligns with its overall goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, there is significant work that must be done to achieve this goal. The EU needs to implement stronger policies, both those that encourage and provide support for the use of renewable energy and low-carbon gas, as well as those that more forcefully limit the use of natural gas.
The EU currently uses far too large an amount of natural gas to meet its overall climate goals, and it will likely take a significant period of time before other energy sources can provide the energy necessary to power the EU. Its policies regarding the restriction of natural gas also need to be improved. On the positive side, it is promising that the EU has recognized that it needs to transition from natural gas to renewable energy and low-carbon gases.
This Post was written by Climate Scorecard EU Manager Brittany Demogenes
Learn More Resources
“Commission Proposes New EU Framework to Decarbonise Gas Markets, Promote Hydrogen and Reduce Methane Emissions.” European Commission – European Commission, 15 Dec. 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_6682.
“EU Wants to Phase out Natural Gas by 2049 to Fight Climate Change.” Euronews, 15 Dec. 2021, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2021/12/15/eu-wants-to-phase-out-natural-gas-by-2049-to-fight-climate-change.
“Natural Gas Supply Statistics.” Natural Gas Supply Statistics – Statistics Explained, Oct. 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Natural_gas_supply_statistics#Consumption_trends.
“Total Greenhouse Gas Emission Trends and Projections in Europe.” European Environment Agency, 26 Oct. 2021, https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/greenhouse-gas-emission-trends-7/assessment.
Yadav Doctoral Researcher in Environmental Regulations, Shashi Kant. “Natural Gas Is a Fossil Fuel, but the EU Will Count It as a Green Investment – Here’s Why.” The Conversation, 9 Mar. 2022, https://theconversation.com/natural-gas-is-a-fossil-fuel-but-the-eu-will-count-it-as-a-green-investment-heres-why-175867.