Will security concerns drive a faster energy transition in Europe?

By: Jiesper Pedersen, Carla Gomes and Filipe Duarte Santos

Energy supply has always been a key security concern. Yet, over the last few months, the Russia-Ukraine war has emerged as a possible driver for a faster transition towards a more resilient and clean energy system. The global economic system is strongly reliant on massive energy consumption. Energy consumption is constantly increasing each year and correlates directly with CO2 emissions. The Paris Agreement’s key goal was to keep warming under 1,5º but has not bent the annually increasing emissions curve yet. Will Putin’s invasion make us deliver on its promise faster?

Stopping Russian gas imports altogether, following the invasion of Ukraine in late February, would have been a strong show of support to the Ukrainian people. However, economic assessments, fear of national recessions, and a firm reliance on Russian natural gas for industry and households have prevented a total halt. Thus, the EU continues to finance the Russian war machine, all the while aiding Ukraine with armoury and gaining time to increase supply from alternative sources.

Russia delivers 40% of the EU’s natural gas supply. Surging fuel and energy prices, and a genuine possibility of disruption, is driving EU calls for changes in heating and mobility behaviours, and faster electrification in Europe, including for heating households. Without this supply many EU companies would have to shut down production. The French government is already preparing a ‘load-shedding’ plan to slow down or entirely halt energy consumption from some companies over the winter. A European vulnerability, which the US warned against for years and the EU also stated in its pre-war climate strategy.

Nevertheless, Russian gas is not the only cause for concern, although communicated as the greatest worry. The admission of natural gas (and nuclear) projects into the new environmental taxonomy of sustainable finance (a process that started before the Ukraine crisis) sparked substantial controversy amidst a worsening climate emergency. This rhetoric change comes at a cost for the climate, Nature, and in the long-term, humans. While Russian fossil fuels are vilified, extraction of oil and gas continues to expand worldwide e.g., in Africa, with problematic climatic and social consequences.

CoP 26 in Glasgow, November 2021 (author’s photo)

The EU wishes for self-reliance strengthens its climate targets

The Russian invasion has triggered a reconstruction in the EU’s energy priorities. Shortly after the beginning of the war, the EU policy climate chief Frans Timmermans stated that “The answer to this concern for our security lies in renewable energy and diversification of supply.”

The EU imports 155 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian natural gas annually. Although changes can be painful, the EU decided in March to cut EU dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds 2022. In 2022, wind and solar will replace 20 bcm, while the EU turns towards the US and the Middle East for gas imports of about 60 bcm. In April, this was changed to a complete phase-out by August 2022.

On May 18th, the European Commission (EC) published the REPowerEU plan for cost-effectively phasing out EU’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels by 2027. The plan raises some critical issues, though.

EU’s Paris Agreement targets (55% reduction of GHG of 1990 levels by 2030) already aimed to reduce the majority of emissions via the energy sector. This includes a planned renewable energy share of 32% by 2030. In 2020 the share of renewable was 22% if one considers final energy consumption, as EU does. REPowerEU raises EU’s climate 2030 climate targets to include a renewable energy share from 40% to 45% (total renewable energy generation capacities from ~1050 to 1200). This reveals some underlying factors that persistently hinder climate mitigation efforts: short-term national interests (predominantly economic interests). In essence, plans to expand renewable capacity needs to backed up by governmental actions, e.g., expanding insufficient electricity grids and renewable permits, which sometimes slows investments.

The unmentioned weakness of the EU plan is that it does not consider the low energy production during 2021 and 2022 from wind and hydro, which has also contributed to drive high energy prices. EU countries such as France and Germany are reactivating coal plants because of their dependence on Russian gas, and Portugal has admitted to doing the same, although only in case of emergency.

One unanswered question is if the massive investments in the EU energy system will compromise the EU’s support for global mitigation. Here the EU falls behind its promised targets, achieving only 40% of the funding for poorer countries.

Finally, the Ukraine crisis demonstrates why sufficient climate mitigation remains challenging in democracies. The EU communicates that 85% of Europeans want independence from Russian fossil fuels. In the light of voters’ interests and approvals the Ukrainian war seem to legitimize strengthened EU climate mitigation. In democracies, politicians operate in a narrow space between implementing long-term sustainable policies (e.g., to mitigate climate change) and meeting voters’ short-term preferences (e.g., economy and immigration). Sustainable development is more likely to happen if voters prioritize it over other preferences.

A new tool in the toolbox

REPowerEU aims to reduce EU dependency on Russian fossil fuels during 2022 both by accelerating a ‘clean’ energy transition and making citizens save energy. The save energy is a new tool in the EU toolbox, which is very much anticipated.

A global problem regarding national climate mitigation policies is that countries have not considered decreasing energy consumption. The global share of fossil fuels in primary energy has remained at 82% since 1990, and renewable energy has increased side-by-side with fossil fuel energy production. Additionally, renewables are not 100% green. They also require resource extraction, biodiversity loss, land, pollution, and waste. Thus, energy-saving tools need to be implemented in any Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement (NDC). 

Energy saving needs to be implemented besides renewables (Source)

A drastic reduction of emissions is urgent as the climate emergency worsens and its effects are increasingly manifest. Wildfires are increasing in the EU, compromising the expected carbon sequestration in forests. This risk is presently experienced via the most recent heatwaves and the July wildfires across Europe. “We need to fire on all pistons to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” had said EU Green Deal chief and United Nations negotiator Frans Timmermans in January. When the Ukrainian war began, the EU increased its mitigation aims from 55 to 60%. “We don’t have the luxury of time,” insisted Aaditya Thackeray, environment minister of the Indian state of Maharashtra. India and Pakistan have been afflicted by extreme heatwaves, which are made more frequent by climate change. The effects of climate change could cost India $35 trillion over the next 50 years.

US and EU energy markets have been driven by short-term investments at home and abroad, leading to environmental and social disasters in vulnerable low-income countries and threatening future generations. Fossil fuels have become a habit. Once embedded in daily practices, addictions are not easily changed (e.g., reopening a coal plant in times of scarcity or investing in a well-known combustion car compared to an ‘unknown’ electrical vehicle). However, a faster and deeper energy transition is urgent to contain the economic, social and natural losses at the global level.

Jiesper Pedersen (PhD candidate and expert in socioeconomic future scenarios and climate policies at Institute of Social Science and doing research under the RNA2100 climate adaptation project at Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon; recent Nature journal article; Orcid)

Carla Gomes is a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. She has worked in multiple projects on climate adaptation, and currently leads the work package Society, Governance and Policy in the H2020 Project B-WaterSmart (2021-2024). carla.gomes@ics.ulisboa.pt

Filipe Duarte Santos is a professor of climate change and sustainable development policies (Wikipedia) and researcher at the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon.


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