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8 July 2021

Rapid climate action in transport? Yes, with gas!

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Once the European Commission presents the Fit for 55 package this July, the reduction of CO2 emissions in transport will become a major point of contention. The truth is: transport must become cleaner, and the sector must finally make its contribution to reaching the climate targets set out by the EU Green Deal, especially given that in 2018 road traffic accounted for 26% of all CO2 emissions in the European Union.

While the overall CO2 emissions have decreased by 23% since 1990, those emitted by transport have actually increased by 24% over this same period. “The bottom line is that despite extensive regulatory activities, the current policy framework has failed to deliver. Even worse, the political discussion is currently focusing on a ‘more of the same’ approach which risks perpetuating a history of failure and does not look at the root cause of the missed target: an ineffective regulatory methodology to reduce CO2 in transport”, says Timm Kehler, CEO of the German Gas Industry Association Zukunft Gas and President of NGVA Europe.

A result-oriented regulatory framework is necessary

Take gas mobility, also known as gmobility, as an example: the technology represents a cost-effective course of action for a rapid decarbonisation of the traffic sector since with biogas, CO2 emissions are reduced by up to 90 percent. In the current framework, however, car manufacturers do not have any incentives to promote vehicles running on biogas. Under the assumption that there will be 13.2 million gas vehicles in Europe in 2030, and with a share of 40% biomethane, 15 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved. Thus, there is a great opportunity to decarbonise road transport that is currently being missed out on.

The major policy regulating the transformation of the transport sector in the EU is CO2 fleet regulation, which is centred to a large extent around alleged emissions-free e-mobility. In fact, the regulations categorise this technology as producing 0 grams of CO2, and looking only at the tailpipe of a vehicle, this approach is effective. Yet, this misses out on the big picture: this approach and regulatory model does not take into account how the electricity that powers e-mobility is produced.

Even with renewables’ current share of 38% of the electricity production in the EU (2020), the real emissions of e-mobility are far from 0 grams of CO­2. In reality, the carbon intensity was at 255 g/kWh in 2020. Yet, on the contrary, no technological bonus is provided for renewable biogas. While at the tailpipe biogas vehicles emit CO2, they have almost no carbon footprint when the whole chain from well to wheel is considered.

We have to consider the entire CO2 value chain to assess vehicle emissions

The existing regulatory framework, with its focus on exhaust pipe emissions, does not reflect the overall system-wide costs of CO2 and the benefits offered by various low-carbon vehicles. Instead, the entire value chain needs to be considered with a comprehensive ‘Well to Wheel’ (WtW) approach.

When looking at the full picture of emissions along the value chain, natural gas mobility is already effective today and offers the potential to reduce CO2 and pollutant emissions in the long term. With the blending of biomethane and synthetic natural gas (SNG), emissions drop accordingly. Thus, a full usage of those green gases can even yield negative greenhouse gas emissions.

However, these results can only be achieved with an adequate and result-oriented regulatory framework. For this to be the case, all technologies that reduce GHG emissions must be ensured fair access to the market.

The current regulations oversee the climate protection potential of gas, although CO2 emissions in road traffic could be significantly reduced today with a large deployment of natural gas vehicles union-wide. The game changing potential of biomethane and SNG to produce negative emissions while driving personal vehicles has not been considered in the regulation. With the amendment of the CO2 emissions performance standards for cars and vans this summer, the EU has the chance to initiate a major overhaul of trends in CO2 emissions: the chance to apply a WtW approach, to assess the real impact of all engines and to avoid path dependency on one limited technology.", Kehler explains further.

Current developments of gas mobility

The study “CO2 Emission Abatement Costs of Gas Mobility and other Road Transport Options” published by NGVA Europe earlier this year demonstrated that compressed natural gas (CNG) passenger vehicles running on a mix of biomethane and natural gas have similar total emissions to e-mobility. When fuelling pure biomethane, gas vehicles even outperform e-mobility when calculated on a combined WtW and manufacturing basis.

While e-mobility is technically possible for city traffic and for short distances covered by passenger vehicles, heavy duty traffic is highly dependent on a fuel that handles longer distances and can be fuelled all across the EU—from France to the Eastern bloc.

Trucks fuelled with liquefied natural gas (LNG) can provide a large reduction in nitrogen oxide and fine dust compared to diesel trucks. Additionally, CO2 emissions will drop significantly when using a mix of LNG and bioLNG.

Not only bioCNG, but bioLNG also rapidly on the rise

While bioCNG is already widely available, bioLNG is still in its infancy, to which Kehler adds: “We can observe that more and more bioLNG projects are being launched.” For instance, Shell is planning to build a gas liquefaction plant to produce CO2-neutral LNG in Cologne. This 100,000-tonne-a-year producing plant will start production by 2023. Additionally, Rolande, a Dutch company working on the development of LNG heavy duty infrastructure, is planning the production of fossil-free fuels for heavy road transport from bio-based raw materials, with BioLNG planning to be produced by the end of 2022 at the Leeuwarden energy campus in the Netherlands.

Another important aspect that has been enabling gmobility is the infrastructure, which has developed impressively over time. For example, about 300 new CNG stations and 150 new LNG stations have been built between January 2020 and April 2021, reaching a milestone of 4400 gas stations in Europe. Simultaneously, LNG vehicle registrations spiked dramatically.

These demand-driven developments demonstrate that gas mobility can contribute to reducing GHG emissions in road transport at a comparably low system cost, and it is also quickly scalable as it is readily available in terms of vehicles, infrastructure, and fuel supply. However, an appropriate regulatory framework at both the EU and national levels is vital to ensuring a competitive market for mobility.

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This article was initially published on Euractiv