Tone-deaf’ fossil gas growth in Europe is speeding climate crisis, say activists

Just 2% of continent’s gas capacity has planned retirement date despite pledges to decarbonise, study shows

Europe’s “tone-deaf” expansion of fossil gas is accelerating climate breakdown and increasing reliance on hostile regimes, campaigners have warned.

Just four of Europe’s gas-fired power plants have a retirement plan and new projects will increase the continent’s gas generation capacity by 27%, according to analysis from the campaign group Beyond Fossil Fuels.

It argues that the dash for gas contradicts the International Energy Agency’s recommendation that rich countries decarbonise their electricity grids in the next 10 years to stop the planet from heating 1.5C.

Governments must send a clear message to the gas industry that its days are numbered, said Alexandru Mustață, a campaigner at Beyond Fossil Fuels. “This undermines our security, exposes us to volatile power prices and toxic emissions, and heightens the risk of stranded assets.”

Campaigners used data from Global Energy Monitor to map Europe’s gas-fired power plants and found a planned retirement date had been set for just 2% of the continent’s capacity.

The analysis found that Italy, the UK and Germany had the greatest planned and installed capacity to make electricity from fossil gas – a fuel that is cleaner than coal but still pumps planet-heating pollutants into the air when it is dug up and burned. The three countries agreed to “fully or predominantly” decarbonise their power sectors by 2035 at a meeting of G7 climate and energy ministers last year.

Although about one-third of the planned power plants are also used to generate heat, which is harder to provide cleanly than electricity, the rest of the projects are just for power or do not specify.

Beatrice Petrovich, an analyst at the climate thinktank Ember, said its modelling of energy transition pathways showed that fossil gas would play a “diminishing role” in the European power generation mix.

Europe needed a clear policy direction to roll out solutions at the pace needed, she added. “Investment in renewables, grids and clean flexibility today is not just good for mitigating the dangerous increase in temperatures, but will cut bills for consumers and reduce the risk of price spikes connected with a volatile global gas market.”

European governments have rushed to build fossil gas infrastructure since Russia invaded Ukraine and sent gas prices soaring, even as they have pushed to phase out fossil fuels on the global stage. The projects under way and in planning range from terminals to receive ships of liquefied natural gas, pipelines to pump gas across the continent and power plants to burn it.

Dr Chris Bataille, an author of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate solutions who is a researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said he thought that new gas plants could play a role in a decarbonised energy system, “but you’re heading to a point by 2035-40 where you’re just keeping that fleet around emergencies”.

He did not expect many of the projects to become stranded assets, he added, because a gas plant pays for itself in about 10 years.

The big worry for the climate is where the gas comes from, said Bataille. “There is a concern with getting stuck on gas that’s high in fugitive emissions. But if you’re being preferential with your buying, it’s a temporary thing you’re planning to shut down once you’ve got enough wind, solar and batteries, I don’t see it as much of a concern.”

The IPCC found in 2022 that the emissions from planned and existing “unabated” fossil fuel infrastructure were enough to blow through the carbon budget for 1.5C. The oil and gas industry has promoted technologies to capture carbon and store it (CCS) as a way to extend the lifetime of its assets instead of replacing them with cleaner sources of energy.

But while experts see carbon capture as a promising way to clean up some dirty industries, such as cement-making, they are sceptical about it playing a useful role in generating electricity – even to complement renewable energy at times when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

The extra capital costs of capturing carbon from a gas plant are so high that “to make it worth it, you would have to run it all the time”, said Bataille. “You can’t use it as a following unit to balance wind and solar.”

While it “might be legitimate” to use fossil gas with carbon capture in places with no alternative sources of clean, firm power, he added, advances in battery technology were making that less likely.

“The case for fossil CCS in power keeps getting smaller and smaller.”


Cover photo: European governments have rushed to build fossil gas infrastructure since Russia invaded Ukraine. Photograph: Annegret Hilse/Reuters