Is renewable gas another biofuels disaster waiting to happen?

Recently the gas sector has been playing up the role of or renewable gas in decarbonising the European Economy. The industry says biogas, biomethane, renewable hydrogen and renewable methane – supported through policy – can help bring about a decarbonised economy. This lobby offensive is gaining some traction, with the Romanian presidency and 17 other EU countries launching a declaration claiming gas networks are needed “to accommodate increasing shares of near-zero carbon hydrogen and renewable gases”. Amongst all that talk of “green gas”, one question beckons: have people been paying attention to the biofuels debacle at all?

The biofuels saga started in a similar fashion in 2008 with the idea to increase renewable fuels in EU transport and decrease the use of fossil oil. Decarbonising transport was very hard and we had to do “something”. But, as explained in numerous blogs and briefings, the EU made a major mistake that has doomed the biofuels policy to this very day. That original sin was to rush into setting a biofuels target without proper rules for sustainability. Tens years on, and after two failed attempts to fix the biofuels policy, those problems are still there.

Are we headed for a similar ‘green gas’ fiasco? Well, with farmers and the gas industry launching report after report claiming the potential for green gas is huge, and nobody really talking about how we’re going to ensure the sustainability of all that green gas, it sounds like we could have a problem. The EU’s sustainability framework for green gas is the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), just like for liquids biofuels. The criteria are not robust enough to ensure that only clean alternatives will be supported. For example, biogas from maize which is associated with significant ILUC impacts and also happens to be the biggest biogas feedstock in Europe, is considered sustainable. Biogas based on food used for heating or electricity is also not capped, unlike like biogas and biofuel used in transport fuels. Other fuels – such as renewable hydrogen not used in the transport sector – are not even defined by the EU and have no sustainability criteria at all.

There are some differences between biogas and biofuels. For example, we’re unlikely to import biogas in a gaseous form whereas we do import large quantities of palm or soy for biodiesel. But, fundamentally, the same issue is at play: if we’re going to be burning huge quantities of maize and other food crops (even if produced in Europe), we’ll need to replace those by something. That means we’ll need more agricultural land (and probably higher imports). The world’s nature is disappearing at an alarming rate. We have to be really careful not to make things worse in the name of “green energy”.

Past attempts to do biogas on a large scale relied largely on food crops. Given that food crops are cheaper and are already produced it is hard to conceive a European renewable gas strategy that would not be heavily reliant on crop-based biogas. Biogas produced from wastes and residues could be a good thing if done right, but in a big market ramp-up without sustainability criteria, waste and residues will lose out to crops. And even if we do it right, policymakers need to realise that sustainable sources of wastes and residues – such as sewage sludge – are available in very limited quantities. The focus on renewable gasses should be on hydrogen produced from renewable electricity, a much more scalable solution..

If there’s one lesson from the the EU biofuels saga it’s that you should never set a mandate or target for new fuels without a really robust sustainability framework. So the last thing the Commission should do now is rush into a new target for green gas. Before even considering this, we need a comprehensive assessment of: biogas feedstock availability, the potential for renewable hydrogen, their direct and indirect sustainability impacts, the likely effects on Europe’s imports, and so forth. Based on that, the EU could define sustainability criteria and then – and only then – should we start discussing whether policy support is a good idea. Our hunch is that all this will show that sustainable biogas won’t play a significant role in decarbonising our energy system, but that renewable hydrogen could play a larger role.

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About the author

Jori Sihvonen's picture

Clean Fuels Officer