Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the continent to face the danger of its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Painful, even previously unthinkable choices, are being made.
When European, US, and Japanese leaders met in Brussels, they debated how far to go in shutting off Russian energy imports. Although a full ban was rejected, President Joseph Biden and European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen announced a deal for the US to send 15 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the EU this year.
Perhaps even more significantly, European governments are embracing renewables and even returning to nuclear. Belgium has backtracked on its denuclearization plan, a cornerstone of the platform of its coalition Green Party. Two reactors scheduled to be decommissioned will be kept in service for an additional 10 years. The choice “will strengthen our country’s independence from fossil fuels in a turbulent geopolitical environment,” Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo announced.
Other governments are doubling down on their nuclear commitments. The Czech Republic has launched a tender for the construction of a new nuclear power plant and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met industry representatives to accelerate the development of new nuclear projects.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, remains the key swing state. Its governing coalition resembles Belgium’s, with a strong Green Party. Berlin is dismantling its few remaining nuclear reactors, with the last two due to close this year. Experts say the country’s nuclear reactors can still be saved, but the government seems unwilling to change its mind.
Aversion to splitting the atom remains so strong that Berlin prefers turning to coal, which still produces 36% of the country’s electricity, while pledging rapidly to construct two new LNG terminals. Renewables represent an attractive, if long-term, alternative. A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the government announced a new plan to subsidize the construction of solar panels, both for domestic use and on an industrial scale, and the construction of new wind farms. The German government has also banned the sale of internal combustion petrol-powered cars from 2035, and allocated €200bn (about $220bn) for environmental protection.
Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK are taking similar measures to accelerate wind investments. France (already much more independent and much less polluting thanks to its nuclear power plants) has blocked subsidies for gas heating. Austria will pump out more money for renewables.
In Brussels, the European Commission has presented a plan – RePowerEU. It responds to the continent’s dependence on Russia dependence with plans to diversify sources and push toward clean energy. There will be a substantial cut to imports of Russian gas this year, accompanied by increasing imports of liquefied natural gas and the strategic use of natural gas reserves, with some purchased collectively by EU member states through a joint procurement plan.
Energy was at the center of the debates this week between US President Biden and his European counterparts. The US has already banned Russian oil imports. Europe will not follow suit. No European country wants to freeze its population by cutting off Russian gas. “It will take most of the decade for the continent to wean itself from those supplies, which now account for more than 40% of its gas imports,” write experts from the Breugel think tank in Brussels. “So for now, Europe will keep buying from Russia as the war in Ukraine expands.”
Germany, in particular, continues to oppose a ban. While Chancellor Olaf Shotz vows that Europe will end its energy dependence on Russia, he continues to say that doing so overnight would risk hundreds of thousands of jobs and entire industrial sectors. “Sanctions should not hurt European states harder than the Russian leadership,” Scholz said.
At the same time, Germany will step up efforts to wean itself off Russian energy. On March 24, German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck announced that the country will end imports of Russian oil by the end of the year. And while he made no concrete promises about gas, he vowed to be “largely” independent by mid-2024.
Transatlantic cooperation will be key. The US needs to step up its exports of natural gas to Europe. Both must work to up oil production in the Middle East and elsewhere. And Europe may, in the short run, need to reopen coal-fired plants. Only by acting together will the alliance break its dependence on Russian energy.
Otto Lanzavecchia is an Italian journalist currently writing for Formiche.net and Decode39. A City, University of London alumnus, he focuses on international affairs, technology, and the ecological transition.