13 Sep 2021 20:02 IST

High gas prices demand creative climate thinking

The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia

The rising cost of the fossil fuel in Europe risks bigger energy bills for households.

Natural gas is having its moment in the sun. The price of the fossil fuel in Europe has risen fivefold since last year, to more than €50 per megawatt hour. That has pushed power prices across the continent to their highest in over a decade, and presents both a problem and an opportunity for politicians preparing for November’s COP26 global climate conference.

Gas prices have surged largely because traders can see European storage levels are well below their five-year average. Imports from Russia are down, partly as a result of the lower flows through Ukraine negotiated by Moscow in 2019. Also, strong Asian demand for liquefied natural gas means LNG exports have shipped to Asia’s higher-priced market instead of Europe. Another factor is the near-trebling in carbon prices this year as the European Union reduces the supply of emissions credits. Soaring domestic energy prices will increase the risk of public discontent and protests, such as those mounted by the so-called yellow vests in France three years ago.

Costs of decarbonisation

That poses a tricky challenge for the upcoming COP climate summit in Glasgow. Attendees want fossil fuels to be more expensive than wind and solar power and are taking steps to ensure that’s the case. For example, the US said last month it would oppose multilateral development institutions like the World Bank helping to finance any new gas-fired projects in middle-income countries like China and India. If Glasgow negotiators are already on the defensive, they will be less likely to take tangible action on cutting emissions significantly.

One way to avoid this outcome would be to ramp up talks on a so-called “just transition”, whereby richer taxpayers shoulder more of the costs of decarbonisation. A UK Treasury report due next month is an opportunity to set a global template for tackling knotty issues like the fact that buildings account for nearly a fifth of the UK’s 500 million tonnes of annual carbon emissions. One solution would be to give poorer families grants and state-subsidised loans to replace gas-fired boilers with zero-emission ground-source heat pumps. And the $50 billion of receipts generated globally from carbon credits and taxation could flow to working families, as is already happening in Canada. The more this happens, the more soaring fossil fuel prices will seem a blessing, rather than a curse.