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How Europe can kick (half of) its coal habit

Coal plants in a German town
Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Neurath lignite-fired power plant in Grevenbroich, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Photo: Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images

Existing natural gas capacity could replace up to half of the European Union’s coal-fired electricity, according to a forthcoming International Energy Agency study described to Axios.

Why it matters: While still a fossil fuel and thus controversial, natural gas emits 50% less carbon than coal. So in cases where gas is displacing coal, overall CO2 emissions go down.

By the numbers: In the analysis expected to be released in July, IEA analysts found that with gas, coal and CO2 prices hovering about where they are right now — 15-20 Euros per megawatt-hour for gas, 6-10 for coal and 20-25 per ton of CO2 — existing natural gas capacity could replace up to half of existing coal electricity.

Where it stands: Environmentalists and some politicians are increasingly opposed to natural gas because they worry it's locking in far too much global warming. Looking purely at the math and science of climate change, they're right. But in this case, it’d be existing — not new — natural gas infrastructure stepping in.

One level deeper: In a new report out last week, the IEA sees little growth for natural gas in Europe over the next five years (and probably more) due to competition from renewable energy. In the meantime though, leaders there say the fuel could provide backup for variable wind and solar.

What they’re saying: “Gas of course has a much lower carbon content than any other fossil fuel. Therefore, we think gas is very important as an intermediate balancing fuel,” Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice president, said in an interview in May.

Go deeper: Natural gas is helping combat climate change — but not enough