The shutdown of Russian energy supplies resulting from Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine could, it’s widely agreed, have been a disaster for a Western Europe mainlining on cheap gas and oil. Instead, Europe seems to have found a renewed vigor for diversifying its energy sources and renewing its climate commitments, showing a veritable wartime level of effort to get the job done.
The mood was hopeful at the 13th General Assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Dubai in January. Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans heralded a new era for European energy, asserting that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the European Union to accelerate its green energy transition. Our energy sovereignty cannot be found in fossil fuels.”
Just a few days later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled a Green Deal Industrial Plan at the World Economic Forum, aiming to cultivate the clean technology industry and respond to increased US investments in green energy.
Such a positive outcome hardly seemed likely just a year ago. Long before the start of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s reliance on Russian hydrocarbons – especially Russian-sourced pipeline gas – allowed Putin to threaten stability across the continent with energy blackmail. Russia slowly turned off the taps by limiting natural gas supplies ahead of winter, leaving countries to cobble together enough alternative sources of energy to stay afloat. Energy prices skyrocketed, and European leaders introduced hugely expensive energy subsidy programs for homes and businesses at a cost now nearing €800bn ($855bn.)
Crucially, however, Europe did not buckle. And after a brief spike in August, gas prices have crawled downwards as pre-stored fuel was able to meet aggressive pre-winter objectives set by the European Commission, including an EU-wide 15% reduction in consumption. A variety of factors led to this early success, including higher-than-average temperatures in Europe thus far this winter and a more fluid global natural gas market throughout 2022 as Chinese gas consumption plummeted due to pandemic-related restrictions; this just a year after it was the number one importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG.) A cautious optimism began to take hold. Putin’s energy blackmail acted as a shock to the system — exposing Europe’s vulnerabilities and highlighting the urgent need to diversify away from Russian energy dependency.
But the problem is very far from solved. This year is set to be an even greater test of European energy resiliency, as those same gas storage facilities that met European Commission goals ahead of winter 2022 did so in part due to the import of Russian pipeline gas — including the now-sabotaged Nord Stream 1 pipeline system — that are unlikely to function in 2023.
Europe has made great strides to build critical energy diversification infrastructure, especially LNG imports to its ports — Germany, which had no LNG port facilities, is now creating five. Meanwhile, the continent has a massive opportunity to also deploy renewable energy infrastructure and favor energy efficiency systems and policy rollouts to help the continent have its cake and eat it. Europe can not only reduce Russian energy dependence but also reduce its carbon emissions.
That aim spurred the EU’s REPowerEU sustainable energy strategy in mid-2022. The resultant acceleration in clean energy infrastructure and energy efficiency investment reawakened confidence in Europe’s ability to achieve the lofty energy goals it set at the 2016 Paris Accords. It may therefore be that Europe will emerge from an acute crisis by slaying the dragon of Russian blackmail while building a continent whole, free, and cleaner than ever before.
There are of course problems with this Panglossian picture. While renewables have been given a significant boost, this will take time. Meanwhile, the hunt for quick-fix solutions is also creating headaches.
Take events in a small town in Germany, close to the Dutch border. The area became a battlefield between police and environmental demonstrators fighting to stop the demolition of Lützerath last month as part of government-approved plans to expand the largest opencast lignite mine in the world. The fact that lignite is a notoriously environmentally damaging product (emitting double the carbon dioxide of natural gas) and that the minister who approved the deal was a Green, while many protesters were also Greens, highlights the difficult and damaging decisions being made.
Europeans overwhelmingly support action to mitigate the effects of climate change, and an emphasis on how new policy frameworks like the REPowerEU strategy fulfill both energy security goals and the climate crisis is vital. While emergency measures may be tolerated for the duration of the war in Ukraine, European governments should make clear to their electorates what infrastructure is being constructed to help Europe outlast Putin’s energy weaponization, and provide clear guidance on how the hydrocarbon-based infrastructure being constructed now will prove critical in future years. They must spell out which elements of the current boom in hydrocarbon infrastructure development are specifically designed to counter Russian malign energy activities, in other words, that they are an interim measure, and detail a timeline for its replacement by renewables. Otherwise, there’s a real risk that there will be more, widely supported climate protests.
It’s far from impossible to secure public support and endure the next phase in the Kremlin’s energy war. Europeans are groaning under cost-of-living pressures, many linked to rising energy prices, which have only partially been ameliorated by government subsidies. The long-term aim must be to bring down those prices and so improve living standards for populations targeted by Russia.
Renewable, clean energy is the only apparent path to combating the climate crisis while working to reduce long-term costs to consumers, and explaining its life-changing benefits while making short-term investments to counter Russian energy weaponization must now be a key aim for governments.
Amelia Martin is Executive Assistant to the Senior Vice President and Program Officer for External Affairs at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Previously, she was a Young Global Professional intern at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Amelia holds a B.A. in International Affairs and Economics from George Washington University.
Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, a Senior Fellow for Democratic Resilience at CEPA, a Fellow of the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies “Rethinking Diplomacy” Program and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Twitter: @BLSchmitt).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.