Sustainable Energy Policy in Germany: A Case of Natural Gas Lock-in

A new Working Paper from STEPS Summer School alumni seeks to explain why (and how) natural gas has assumed such a dominant role in German energy policy, and at what cost. The authors call upon fellow researchers to challenge the increasing dominance of gas in energy systems worldwide, and to intervene in academic, NGO and policy-making structures to illuminate alternative pathways.

By Louise Fitzgerald and Hanna Brauers

As the need to address the climate crisis becomes ever more present, natural gas has been increasingly promoted as a solution to the central task of decarbonising energy systems. In recent years, it has been touted as a ‘bridge’ and ‘transition’ fuel, which will aid in restricting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.[i]

This is puzzling and alarming. Natural gas contains high levels of methane, a greenhouse gas which has a global warming potential 86 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period (and still 34 times more over a 100-year period). Yet, despite this unsuitability for climate mitigation, natural gas is becoming increasingly prevalent, promoted in particular by the natural gas industry.

In our recent paper for the STEPS Working Paper series (co-authored with Isabell Braunger), we sought to explain the reasons behind this. What we found is that support for natural gas is the result of incumbent fossil fuel actors using strategies to secure and maintain their interests in the context of decarbonisation, resulting in an institutional lock-in of fossil fuels.

Why natural gas?

Having found little to no attention paid to this issue by scholarly communities or civil-societies, our aim with the paper is to provide a birds-eye view of the landscape and key issues therein. While we focus on the case of Germany, the findings of the paper have generalisable insights regarding the gas issue.  We analytically unpack the emerging dominant pathways of natural gas being framed as a decarbonisation approach. In doing so, we demonstrate that the narratives surrounding natural gas in Germany are politically and socially constructed, representing particular interests, and not an immovable reality necessary to combat climate change.

The central way these narratives emerge is through lock-in effects, understood as mechanisms which reinforce a certain pathway of economic, technological and industrial development, which can lead to what Antje Klitkou and colleagues refer to as ‘path dependency’. Those familiar with the STEPS pathways approach will recognise the emphasis on the role of path dependency in approaches to sustainability policy. Specifically, this approach recognises that, of all the diverse pathways to social, technological and environmental sustainability that are typically viable in any given setting, various self-reinforcing dynamics typically mean that particular pathways are often ‘crowded out’ in favour of those preferred by the most powerful interests.

Natural gas lock-in in Germany

The fossil-fuel system has a powerful lock-in effect, and companies within it will attempt to secure as little deviation from the current model, as was borne out in the German case. It is therefore important to note that lock-in reinforces itself, and to be critically aware of the vested interests at play.

Currently, four large-scale import terminals for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) are being planned in Germany. These projects receive political (financial) support by state and federal governments, granting direct and indirect subsidies. This needs to be considered in the context that Germany is one of the best-connected countries within Europe, with access to an existing, diverse network of gas pipelines, storage facilities and LNG terminals with excess capacities in neighbouring states. Additionally, from a climate perspective, gas consumption needs to decline drastically.

However, the use of LNG is being promoted over current and alternative fuels, especially in the energy, transport and industry sector. For instance, from 2020 tighter emissions regulations on sulphur in the shipping industry will restrict the use of current fuels, mainly heavy oil. Elsewhere, the use of natural gas, in a liquid or gaseous form, is being promoted for trucks and personal vehicles, referring to LNG as a supposedly environmentally and climate-friendly alternative. In doing so, these actors neglect the current state of science on natural gas that shows it to be either only marginally better or worse than alternative energy carriers, such as coal in the energy sector or heavy oil in the transport sector.

High stakes for sustainability and climate justice

If this pathway of high natural gas consumption, with continuing large-scale investments in gas infrastructure, is pursued, it will further entrench lock-in of a fossil-fuel dependent system for decades, increasing incentives for further investments and subsequent technology innovation. LNG terminals are being planned globally, including several projects funded by the EU within ‘Projects of Common Interest’ or the ‘Connecting Europe Facility’. These initiatives have significant justice implications across supply chains, and serious ramifications for the climate, as outlined above.

There is a real risk that sustainable energy transformations are being destabilised by the push for gas. Positioning ourselves as activist researchers, aware of the climate and environmental justice impacts of gas globally, we are increasingly concerned about current developments, and hope our research paper contributes to finding alternative pathways. We call upon fellow researchers to challenge the increasing dominance of gas, illuminate alternatives and feed these into the academic, NGO and policy-making structures.

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For more information, read STEPS Working Paper 106, Destabilisation of Sustainable Energy Transformations: Analysing Natural Gas Lock-in in the case of Germany.

Download the paper (PDF).

[i] For more on this, see the following articles:
Neumann, A. and Hirschhausen, C. von (2015) ‘Natural Gas: An Overview of a Lower-Carbon Transformation Fuel’, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 9 (1): 64–84

Mac Kinnon, M. A., Brouwer, J. and Samuelsen, S. (2018) ‘The Role of Natural Gas and Its Infrastructure in Mitigating Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Improving Regional Air Quality, and Renewable Resource Integration’, Progress in Energy and Combustion Science 64 (January): 62–92