Energy: How can Europe alienate Russian fossil fuels?

When Russian tanks and soldiers rolled into Ukraine, it opened eyes across Europe to the fact that energy independence is a matter of national security. To that end, European leaders quickly declared the need to wean off Russian fossil fuels.

But how is Europe giving up a cheap and reliable source of energy?

Why we wrote this

The war in Ukraine crystallized European thinking about the need to end dependence on Russian energy. But this freedom can come at a short-term cost to green energy goals.

Germany imports around 60% of its energy, with around half of its natural gas and coal needs coming from Russia, as well as a third of its oil. About half a dozen European countries, including Finland, Bulgaria and Latvia, are even more dependent on Russian imports, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia being 100% dependent.

To cope with immediate supply shortages, Europe will likely be forced to fall back on a mix of undesirable but proven fuels such as coal and nuclear. In the longer term, according to energy experts, the danger exposed by the war in Ukraine could spur the governments, industries and consumers into action that has pushed climate change on the horizon.

“The war will lead to a short-term increase in coal production, but I expect this to be offset by a significant advance in low-carbon solutions,” says Julian Popov, a fellow at the European Foundation for Development. weather. “The opportunities are huge.”

Berlin

When Russian tanks and soldiers rolled into Ukraine, it opened eyes across Europe to the fact that energy independence and the transition to green sources is not just a matter of environmental concern. It is a matter of national security.

Nowhere is the evidence of this awakening more evident than in Germany, whose capital, Berlin, lies about 800 kilometers from the Polish-Ukrainian border. Having already shut down a long-awaited Russian-German gas pipeline in the run-up to war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was quick to declare that the country must wean off Russian energy supplies, while the European Commission announced its intention to buy two-thirds less Russian natural gas by the end of the year.

This energetic awakening will take Germany and Europe to new and unknown places. To cope with immediate supply shortages, the continent will likely be forced to fall back on a mix of undesirable but tried fuels such as coal and nuclear. In the longer term, the danger exposed by the war in Ukraine could spur action from governments, industries and consumers, who have been all too comfortable pushing climate change action towards the horizon, according to the energy experts.

Why we wrote this

The war in Ukraine crystallized European thinking about the need to end dependence on Russian energy. But this freedom can come at a short-term cost to green energy goals.

“We have a war on three fronts – a pandemic, a murderous war in Ukraine and a climate crisis,” says retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, former commanding general of the US First Army and an advocate for the protection of the environment. “Now is the time for us to think bigger and more strategically than Ukraine as the Earth heats up. How can we take the gun out of our heads of fossil fuel militarization – and at the same time how can- cool us the Earth?”

Take a step back to move forward

Germany has a long and complex history of relations with Russia, and is suddenly aware that it cannot rely on Russian fossil fuels. How does it deprive itself of a reliable and cheap energy import source?

Not easily, experts say.

Germany imports around 60% of its energy, according to the World Bank, with around half of its natural gas and coal needs coming from Russia, as well as a third of its oil. About half a dozen European countries, including Finland, Bulgaria and Latvia, are even more dependent on Russian imports, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia being 100% dependent.

Two weeks ago, in an urgent political speech on Sunday morning after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz said a ‘forward-looking energy policy’ is crucial for the economy , climate and security. This week, he also said that alternatives to Russian energy are not coming soon. “There is currently no other way to secure Europe’s energy supply for heat generation, mobility, power supply and industry,” he said. The EU has made a “conscious decision” to continue buying Russian energy, he said in a separate statement.

A sign reading “Nord Stream 2 Committed. Reliable. Safe.” hangs above a painted map of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Lubmin industrial area in Lubmin, Germany, November 16, 2021. Nord Stream 2 is one of the main victims of the fallout between Germany and the Russia during the war in Ukraine, after Berlin ordered the project stopped and the company running it declared bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Europe has set itself the ambitious goal of halving its dependence on Russian gas within a year. This will mean that the short term could look like a step backwards for green energy advocates, since even German Economy Minister Robert Habeck – a Green Party leader – has spoken of a return to coal and the reopening of closed nuclear power plants.

“These are taboos,” says Tyson Barker, head of technology and global affairs for the German Council on Foreign Relations, “but in these extraordinary circumstances they’re playing a very pragmatic role saying, ‘OK, we have to do this even if it temporarily goes against our fundamental principles.

“We all have to sacrifice ourselves”

In the longer term, phasing out Russian fuels will lead to “substantial but manageable” economic costs, write the authors of an energy report from three German universities.

High energy prices may force households and industries to take steps to reduce home energy use, the authors say. For example, lighting consumes up to 50% of energy consumption, depending on the country.

Or maybe air conditioners will be moved to higher temperatures in the summer, with fewer clothes worn to compensate. The benefits are clear: lowering household thermostats in Europe by 1 degree Celsius will save 10 billion cubic meters of gas, estimates the International Energy Agency. This simple decision would save 7% of Russia’s annual gas exports to Europe and cut Russian export earnings by about a quarter, estimates Chi Kong Chyong, an energy researcher at the University of Cambridge.

“These little things should be rolled into an immediate response strategy,” says General Honoré. “We all have to make sacrifices. We are at war, whether we accept it or not. We cannot continue to operate as if this war is not going on. The best way to do this is to get viewers to reduce our energy consumption.

Other measures planned by the International Energy Agency include increasing imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), increasing gas storage to prepare for winter, accelerating new wind projects and solar energy and the maximization of nuclear energy production.

General Honoré says industry must also do its part, devoting more engineering talent to the development of alternative energy sources. “It’s not a moonshot,” he said. “We need to get some of our best engineers, and it should be a national competition between industrial nations to find those solutions. There are many teachers and [researchers] who have solutions. But we must welcome them. »

Some solutions will be less than desirable. For example, the massive shift to electric cars would reduce oil demand but boost demand for nickel, a key component of car batteries. The largest nickel producer in the world is a Russian company, and prices per tonne have skyrocketed. Moreover, buying LNG elsewhere does not mitigate the fact that this fuel produces the most methane of greener energies. An energy transition should not aim to replace coal with gas, but rather to reduce the use of both, says Julian Popov, a fellow with the European Climate Foundation and a former Bulgarian environment minister.

The US may be Europe’s biggest supplier of natural gas in liquid form, but “be very, very careful with the idea that US LNG can save Europe”, says Mr Popov. “It just won’t work.”

A tipping point

Europe is at a time when crucial decision-making may finally change the trajectory of how we produce and consume energy, energy experts say. And the goal should not be to get fossil fuels from countries other than Russia, but to reduce global demand for fossil fuels, says Dr Chyong, who points out that in the next three to five years, Russia can simply replace Europe with other buyers. “Reducing the use of fossil fuels is our real and effective weapon against Vladimir Putin.”

Mr. Popov says the time has come. No one needs to be convinced of the need for an energy transition and the learning curve around alternative energies has progressed considerably. If there’s an obvious solution, people will go there, he says.

“The war will lead to a short-term increase in coal production, but I expect that to be offset by a significant advance in low-carbon solutions,” Popov said. “Opportunities [for this moment] are huge.

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