"Natural gas is part of the solution to the climate change problem."


Jérôme Schmitt, former Senior Vice President, Sustainable Development & Environment at Total explains the synergistic potential of natural gas and renewables in meeting the energy needs of an expanding world that wants to minimize its environmental impact.


What role can natural gas play in the changing energy mix?

The global economy's carbon intensity has to be reduced. It must be done gradually so that everyone can adapt, with the implementation of affordable solutions. Most economies in the world are undergoing development and need to have access to clean, sustainable energy . In terms of electricity generation, renewable energy sources offer obvious advantages, but a few drawbacks as well. For solar energy to be competitive and available in sufficient quantities, you need to have an ample, steady supply of sunshine. The same is true for wind and wind power. Because these energies are intermittent , the problem is how to store them. Total supports start-ups in this sector, but reliable, affordable solutions won't be available for some time. Furthermore, renewable energy sources aren't yet fully developed. It will take dozens of years and a great deal of investment before they account for a significant share of the energy mix.

Natural gas meets all the requirements for accessibility, sustainability and environmental impact. A gas-fired power station can operate around the clock. Natural gas is plentiful, and it produces half the carbon emissions of a coal-fired plant . Coal-fired power plants release an aggregate 10 billion metric tons of carbon per year, or one fifth of total global emissions. Replacing them with gas-fired power stations would cut these emissions in half.

So why aren't coal-fired power plants being replaced with natural gas projects?

Other factors besides the environment need to be taken into consideration. Let's take the case of Europe. Renewable energies, nuclear energy and coal each account for about 25% of electricity generation, compared to just 15% for natural gas. There are many reasons for this surprising difference in a continent that considers itself a showcase for climate consciousness. First, even if the overall power mix is balanced, it's more due to chance than to anything else, since each country is responsible for defining its own energy policy. Second, in Europe, coal is more accessible than natural gas. Lastly, Europe's biggest coal markets, Poland and Germany, tend to look the other way when you talk about shifting from coal to natural gas . For Poland it's an energy security issue: the country doesn't want to be dependent on Russian gas . And in Germany, the coal industry still employs more than 80,000 miners.

What can be done to encourage a European policy that promotes natural gas?

To address the challenges related to climate change, it's important to establish the right carbon price . The one set by the ETS (Emission Trading System , editor's note) in Europe is too low to bring about a reduction in the share of coal-generated electricity but high enough to penalize industry, which, poorly protected, faces competition from an unfettered China and America. If Europe wants to cut its carbon emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2030, it had better start dealing with the carbon issue seriously. Our case before Brussels and the United Nations is simple: first, industry can provide part of the solution to the climate change problem but needs a broad set of clear, balanced measures, implemented gradually over time, so it can invest confidently in the long term. Second, solutions must be accessible and profitable in order to be sustainable. That’s the case for gas, but it is being held back by the lack of clear support, at least in Europe.

Interview conducted in partnership with La Tribune