In addition to causing vast human suffering, Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine is trampling Europe’s energy and climate plans. The impact of Russia's bold and unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine, cannot be understated. The violence and physical destruction, blatant disregard for national sovereignty, and the brutal displacement of millions of innocent civilians have shocked the world.
The war has also created political and economic uncertainty for neighboring countries and the globe, with insecurity about a wider war rippling through the European continent and the West. Expanded fighting is not the only fear. An extended conflict, and the way nations including Russia respond to it, are dramatically affecting energy markets. The impact on an oil-based economy is easy to see. Much less clear is the impact the war will have on nations' plans to wean themselves off oil.
Phasing out Fossil Fuels
Russia's European neighbors have been earnestly moving away from fossil fuels for many years. Germany, for example, has adopted a policy known as “Energiewende,” the ongoing transition to a-low carbon, environmentally sound, reliable, and affordable energy supply, which will guide the country on a path to phasing out nuclear power and coal and getting 50% of its energy from renewables by the year 2030.
Denmark aims to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 70% from 1990 levels by 2030 and plans for renewables to cover at least half of the country’s total energy consumption by 2030.
On a broader scale, the European Union’s (EU) Green Deal will reduce net GHG emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by the year 2030, and reach no net emissions of these gases by 2050. Late last year, at the COP26 Climate Summit, more than forty countries agreed to phase out the use of coal.
With all these examples in mind, the nexus between the war in Ukraine and the rest of Europe's energy needs may be unclear. After all, one of the primary objectives of powering up entirely on renewables is to establish so-called "energy independence."
It is fair to ask, then, why or how nations that have fully embraced renewables and are on a near-term path to becoming fossil fuel-free would be impacted in the least by Russia's actions.
The answer is in the wording. Being on a near-term path implies that nations have not yet completely weaned themselves off fossil fuels, and in this regard, Russia plays a vital role.
Despite their efforts and intentions, European nations are still predominantly reliant on fossil fuels. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, as of 2019, the EU was still only getting about 15% of its energy from renewables. The bulk of its energy continues to come from a mix of oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and coal, in that order.
Despite their efforts and intentions, European nations are still predominantly reliant on fossil fuels.
The continent also does not generate most of the energy it consumes. Instead, most of its power is imported. According to Eurostat, the EU gets about 60% of its energy from imports. Most importantly, most of the imports come from Russia. It is the continent's largest energy supplier, accounting for 27% of the oil, 41% of the natural gas, and 47% of the coal that is consumed there.
This has also not been by accident. For many of the nations that are on a path to clean energy, gas from Russia was intended to support their transition. Moving from an economy fueled by fossil fuels to one that is powered by new clean energy sources takes years. Sufficient capacity from renewable generation must get regulatory approval, obtain financing, then undergo construction. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for example, was approved by Germany to supply additional natural gas to support the country as it pursues its “Energiewende” objectives.
This hard reality presents a challenging political dynamic for a continent that is appalled by Russia's behavior, wants to take punitive action against it, and does not want to indirectly finance the war with the proceeds from its own purchases of Russian fuel. Can Europe punish Russia without punishing itself? Conversely, will a more rapid divorce from Russian oil, gas, and coal facilitate an even more rapid transition to clean burning renewable energy?
The responses so far have been mixed. On February 23, one day before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine, Germany paused the certification of the above-mentioned Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The 1,200-kilometer pipeline running under the Baltic Sea, which has already been built, would double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream supply line, bringing the total capacity for the two parallel conduits to 110 billion cubic meters of natural gas delivered to Germany every year.
In announcing a pause of the certification, effectively stopping any fuel from being transported across the newly built pipeline, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had previously resisted linking the pipeline to political events, said that "the situation today is fundamentally different," in reference to Russia's aggression. The decision was perilous if not politically correct. Germany relies on gas for about one-quarter of its energy consumption. Almost all of that is imported, and nearly half of those imports come from Russia.
To compensate for the loss in supply, Germany made some quick decisions. On March 20, barely a month after pausing Nord Stream 2, Germany's economy and climate minister, Robert Habeck, announced an energy partnership with the Emir of Qatar that includes the supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as well as cooperation on renewables, saying “It’s the Ukraine crisis which has brought me here.” The deal is designed to find a replacement for Russian gas and shield the country's consumers from skyrocketing prices. Also in March, Habeck announced a tentative plan to partner with Norway to build a pipeline for blue hydrogen as a secondary replacement for Russian gas.
Both decisions will help the country replace fuel supplies, but they will not get the country any closer to its clean energy goals because both fuel sources, LNG, and blue hydrogen, are considered fossil fuels.
Other countries have taken similar steps. The Italian government recently announced plans to phase out the country's heavy reliance on gas imports from Russia “within thirty months” and a 50% reduction by late spring. It has not specified how it will do this.
On March 25, the United States announced a joint effort with the European Union to deliver an additional 15 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe this year and another 50 billion annually by 2030.
The controversy has also sparked discussions in many of the affected countries about reconsidering plans to phase out nuclear power and even coal.
Making a Clean Break
Not all are pleased with these responses. In his keynote speech to a Sustainability Summit hosted by the Economist on March 21, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “This is madness,” in reference to nations hastening to replace Russian oil and gas with other fossil fuels. “Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction,” he added.
However, at the same time, nations are also taking a more aggressive approach toward clean energy in their response to the Ukraine invasion. On March 8, the European Union announced the outline of a plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels, starting with gas, well before 2030.
To achieve this goal, the EU proposes to develop a plan, called REPowerEU, that will increase the resilience of the EU-wide energy system based on two pillars. The first pillar involves diversifying gas supplies by using higher LNG and pipeline imports from suppliers other than Russia, plus larger volumes of biomethane and renewable hydrogen production and imports. The second pillar will rely on faster reduction in the use of fossil fuels in homes, buildings, industry, and power systems. This will be accomplished by boosting energy efficiency, increasing renewables and electrification, and addressing infrastructure bottlenecks.
The EU notes that existing proposals are already on track to reduce annual fossil gas consumption by 30%, equivalent to 100 billion cubic meters (bcm), by the year 2030. Under the new proposals, fossil fuel reduction and energy diversification could be achieved even faster. According to the EU, member nations could remove at least 155 bcm of fossil gas use, which is equivalent to the volume imported from Russia in 2021. Nearly two-thirds of that reduction could be achieved within a year, ending the EU's overdependence on a single supplier.
Member nations are also taking their own independent actions. For its part, Germany has stepped up its clean energy transition. Just two days prior to announcing its LNG and blue hydrogen deals, Climate Minister Habeck announced a comprehensive program for energy efficiency measures, and in February, German policymakers began considering legislation to rapidly accelerate the expansion of wind and solar power, bringing forward a target to generate almost all the country’s electricity from renewable sources by fifteen years to 2035.
The Long View
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced all responsible nations of the world to make some very difficult choices. None are pain-free. Natural gas and other fossil fuels were to play an integral role in the transition to a carbon-free energy landscape. Sufficient renewable capacity cannot be created in a snap. Nor can fossil fuels be eliminated right away.
However, the politics of aggression does not respect environmental concerns or well-intended plans to transform the way the world consumes power. Nations must make painful choices. Just as the outcome of the way remains uncertain, time will tell if the European leaders have acted prudently in their difficult endeavor to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable differences.
*Rick Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California, US. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has been covering renewable power and other related subjects for more than ten years.