Building new gas plants in times of climate emergency? That makes no sense.

(Here’s the original English version of our op-ed published in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen, written together with science journalist Mark Lynas, author of Our Final Warning)

Because of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the world economy, global emissions dropped by 8% in 2020. A silver lining? Not quite. If we want to reach the goal of the Paris climate agreement, keeping global temperature rises below 1.5°C, we would need such a reduction every single year until 2030 — except without all the death and devastation, please.

Many policymakers pay lip service to the climate agenda, but few really grasp the magnitude of the challenge. Our shared 1.5-degree goal doesn’t just amount to lowering our emissions somewhat, but bringing them down to zero in a matter of decades. That requires an unprecedented overhaul of just about every sector of our global economy. 

There’s no single silver bullet for this challenge, and climate policy may face some difficult dilemmas. In particular, we can have legitimate debates about a realistic time schedule to phase out coal or gas. Shutting down every coal or gas plant tomorrow, or even next year, would spell disaster for millions of people. 

But one thing we certainly don’t need in this climate emergency, especially in rich and industrialized countries, is building new fossil fuelled infrastructure. Just this week, IEA director Fatih Birol bluntly dismissed any new oil and gas projects as “junk investments”. And yet, Belgium wants to build several brand new natural gas plants by 2025. Natural gas — as we’re sure we don’t need to remind you — is a fossil fuel, which emits tons of CO2, which warms the climate. This disastrous decision risks locking in fossil fuels for decades. After all, no company will build a plant only to take it offline in a couple of years. To recover their capital costs, gas plants need to burn for decades. 

The tragedy is that this is completely unnecessary. Belgium currently has seven nuclear reactors generating clean and CO2-free electricity, at least two of which could operate for another 20 years. According to a study by EnergyVille, keeping just the two youngest reactors open would avoid 45 million tons of CO2 emissions. But the pro-gas energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten doggedly persists with her plan for a complete nuclear phase-out by 2025, for what can only be described as purely ideological reasons. 

It gets worse, because Belgium is actually going to subsidize fossil fuels, using a ’Capacity Remuneration Mechanism’ to compensate companies for the lost revenue when their fossil fuel plants are not needed (i.e. when there’s enough sunshine and wind). So not only are we going to build new fossil fuel plants to burn more fossil fuels, we’re also going to pay fossil fuel companies to do it for us. 

A gas plant (not a nuclear plant) in Vilvoorde, Belgium.

This indefensible decision is being defended with special pleading and fallacious reasoning that green parties would never tolerate in other contexts. Building gas plants is really carbon-neutral, goes one line of reasoning, because the power sector is covered by the European emission trading systems (ETS), which sets a fixed ceiling on emissions. So no matter if we emit a little more, because someone else will emit a little less? Indeed, some say our gas plants will push coal plants elsewhere out of the market, so they’re actually a boon for the climate! By that logic, we could all fly guilt-free throughout Europe every day, because aviation is covered by ETS as well. In reality, building gas plants is short-sighted and selfish, because it makes the energy transition more expensive for other countries. If we want to push that Polish coal plant out of the market, we should just lower the emissions ceiling instead. No contortions of logic will detract from this simple fact: every molecule of CO2 counts, because every molecule contributes to warming. If we miss the 1.5-degree target, 99% of coral reefs will be wiped out and low-lying island nations will cease to exist. 

But gas plants are easier to ramp up and down, goes another argument, and thus can make more room for renewables. It is true that gas plants are more flexible than nuclear plants, but this argument puts the cart before the horse: our challenge is to minimize emissions, not to maximize renewables. A system with renewables + gas is still worse for the climate than a system with renewables + nuclear. Besides, Belgium already has 6.83 GW of gas capacity to allow for flexibility.

But in a few years from now the gas plants will burn green hydrogen or will be equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS), some reassure us. If only. There is not a single commercial CCS plant currently in operation in Europe, because the technology is very expensive, and in any event only captures part of the emissions. And green hydrogen? If we want to electrify transport and industrial processes (as we must) we will need all our newly installed wind and solar capacity to cover our growing electricity demand, especially in a densely populated country like Belgium. Some green hydrogen will be used for industrial purposes, but the notion of first generating electricity to then create hydrogen (through electrolysis), and to then burn that hydrogen to make electricity again, is extremely inefficient and expensive, and will not solve the ‘seasonal challenge’.

This is not about being pro-nuclear, but about being anti-fossil fuels. If in 20 years from now we have developed renewable energy systems that have solved the problem of energy storage and land intensity, then perhaps we can think about saying goodbye to nuclear energy. But then again, by then we might also have cheap next-generation nuclear reactors that can team up with solar and wind to form a clean energy system.That is a debate we can have in good time when we have dealt with the emergency that is in front of us today – the climate emergency. We simply do not have the luxury of taking zero-carbon energy out of the picture and replacing it with fossil fuels. On her personal website Tinne Van der Straeten writes: “Fossil fuels are a thing of the past. Oil, coal, and gas must remain underground as much as possible.” She’s right. Addressing the climate emergency means no new fossil fuelled infrastructure – starting now.