Before Russia’s war in Ukraine, the most pressing goal of Europe’s energy policy was to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change.
Now officials are determined to rapidly reduce the continent’s dependence on Russian oil and natural gas — and that means friction between security goals and climate goals, at least in the short term.
To wean itself off Russian energy supplies as quickly as possible, Europe will need to burn more coal and build more pipelines and terminals to import fossil fuels from elsewhere.
The step change comes amid soaring fuel costs for motorists, homeowners and businesses, and as political leaders reassess the geopolitical risks of being so dependent on energy from Russia.
In 2021, the European Union imported about 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil from Russia – an economic relationship that officials say would prevent hostilities, but instead finance them.
While some are calling for an immediate boycott of all Russian oil and gas, the EU plans to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of this year, and phase them out completely before 2030.
It “will not be easy,” said Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s top economics official. But, he added, “it can be done.”
In the short term, the end of energy ties with Russia emphasizes securing alternative sources of fossil fuels. But in the longer term, geopolitical and price pressures fueled by Russia’s war in Ukraine could actually accelerate Europe’s transition away from oil, gas and coal.
Experts say the war has served as a reminder that renewable energy is not only good for the climate, but also for national security. This could help accelerate the development of wind and solar power, as well as spur energy conservation and efficiency initiatives.
The EU has pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Analysts and officials say these targets, set in EU climate legislation, can still be achieved.
The rapid pursuit of energy independence from Russia will likely require “a slight increase” in carbon emissions, said George Zachmann, energy expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. But “in the long term, the effect will be that we will see more investment in renewables and energy efficiency in Europe,” Zachmann said.
Plans that would not have been considered just months ago are now being actively discussed, such as the operation of coal-fired power plants in Germany beyond 2030, which was previously seen as an end date. .
German Vice Chancellor and Energy Minister Robert Habeck said there should be “no taboos”.
The Czech government has made the same calculation regarding the extension of the lifespan of coal-fired power plants.
“We will need it until we find alternative sources,” Czech Energy Security Commissioner Václav Bartuška told the Seznam Zprávy news site. “In the meantime, even the greenest government won’t phase out coal.”
One of Europe’s top priorities is to buy more liquefied natural gas that can be transported by ship. On Friday, US and European officials announced a plan under which the United States and other countries will increase their exports of liquefied gas to Europe this year, although US officials were unable to say exactly which countries will supply the extra energy this year.
Germany, which lacks import terminals to turn LNG into gas as it leaves the ship, is pursuing two multi-billion euro projects on its North Sea coast.
The war also revived Spanish interest in extending a gas pipeline across the Pyrenees to France. The 450 million euro ($500 million) project was scrapped in 2019 after France showed little interest and a European feasibility study deemed it unprofitable and unnecessary. If built, it would allow gas imported into Spain and Portugal in the form of LNG to reach other parts of Europe.
In Britain, which is no longer part of the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “time to take back control of our energy supplies”.
Britain will phase out the small amount of oil it imports from Russia this year. More importantly, Johnson has announced plans to approve new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, much to the dismay of environmentalists, who say it is incompatible with Britain’s climate goals.
Some within the ruling Conservative Party and the wider political right want the UK government to backtrack on its pledge to reach net zero by 2050, a commitment made less than six months ago at a world climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Conservative Party co-chair Oliver Dowden said last week that “Britons want to see a bit of Conservative pragmatism, not net zero dogma”.
Yet the shock waves of war cut in both directions.
Soaring gas and electricity prices and the desire to be less dependent on Russia are increasing pressure to expand local renewable energy development and to propel conservation.
The International Energy Agency recently released a 10-point plan for Europe to cut its dependence on Russian gas by a third within a year. Simply lowering building thermostats by an average of one degree Celsius during the home heating season would save 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year, or around 6% of what Europe imports from Russia.
At German rooftop solar panel company Zolar, chief executive Alex Melzer said there had been a flurry of inquiries from potential customers since the start of the war.
“With the Ukraine crisis, we have really seen that people are wondering if Germany is going to stop buying oil and gas from Russia and what will happen to our electricity and energy system,” he said. he told the Associated Press.
Melzer said customers are less interested in saving the planet than saving money, despite the initial investment of 20,000 euros ($22,000). But this amounts to the same thing: a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and therefore in emissions.
“Goal achieved, great,” he said.
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