By Laura de Boer
Last summer, on 14 July 2021, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal, a set of measures aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the use of renewable energy, and saving the environment. The Commission is happy to point out that this package of climate policies is ambitious and progressive while remaining achievable. And while it is true that the size of the Green Deal is mind-boggling – it is certainly impossible to analyse its entirety in an article like this – the question remains whether it will be enough. Especially now that the war in Ukraine has made it clear that the European Union is still very dependent on Russian gas and oil.
Now, I know what it looks like: there is a war going on in Ukraine, cities are being bombed, people are losing their homes and family, and I am writing about how sad it is that gas prices are rising from the comfort of my home. Just to be clear, I do not mean to argue that Europe’s dependence on Russian energy is the worst consequence of this war, far from it. Russia’s invasion has demonstrated its disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its disrespect against liberal democracy. It is in the EU’s interest and its moral duty to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe. In the past month, it has certainly done much to help Ukraine through sanctions on Russia and pausing the build of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but as long as European countries are still importing energy from Russia, we are indirectly funding their war machine. Let’s take a look at what it would take to become energy-independent.
Europe’s Gas Reliance
Right now, Russia supplies more than a third of Europe’s gas. If this were to all cease completely tomorrow, Europe will be in much trouble. Therefore, the EU has already started to look for alternatives. The Commission has agreed with the United States that the EU will receive an additional 15 billion cubic metres of LNG (liquified natural gas) this year on top of the 22 billion that was already agreed on. Thereby, the EU can replace at least some of its Russian gas supply with gas from the Americans. I say some, as the agreement states that 50 billion cubic metres of LNG each year from the US would merely replace around one-third of Russian gas. Other alternatives include a return to coal. Coal is considered more environmentally damaging than gas, which is why many countries already had plans to close their coal-fired power plants. Now Europe’s coal usage may be extended by one to two years.
Europe’s global search for gas alternatives will probably keep us warm for the following few winters, but it is hardly the desired solution. For the mid to long-term, renewable energy is the answer we are looking for and it is the only answer that is right. Apart from their sustainability – we will avoid burning the planet to a crisp – renewable energy sources will give us the independence we need. The ability to generate energy within the EU’s borders will free us from Putin’s oily grasp, at least in one of the most essential sectors.
The search for alternatives
Of course, energy transitions like this are difficult, our current energy network has been built around fossil fuels and much will have to be adjusted to handle the new energy forms. Luckily, the EU has a plan already, called REPowerEU. It includes a set of short-term energy measures aimed at being completely independent from Russian gas by 2030. The plan consists of two main pillars: 1) diversifying the gas supply (which I highlighted above), and 2) accelerating renewables and energy efficiency. The second pillar could be seen as an acceleration of the current Green Deal, so let’s see what this deal actually entails.
One part of the Green Deal is the Fit For 55 package, which entails a variety of legislative proposals to ensure that new EU policies are not in the way of reaching its climate goals. What are these goals? Well, there are two key targets: the first is that the EU will reduce its greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030, and the second is that it will be fully climate neutral by 2050. And seeing as energy production is accountable for 75% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, it seems like the right place to start.
Fit For 55 is quite a good plan as it aims to reduce greenhouse gases by 55%, measured from the level they were in 1990. It even includes a proposal to increase the current renewable energy target from 32% to 40%, meaning that by 2030, 40% of all the energy in the EU should come from renewable sources. Surprisingly enough, some countries are already well underway. Sweden is leading the pack with 56% of its energy use coming from renewable sources. At the bottom are countries like The Netherlands, where energy still originates from over 40% from gas, and 37% oil. On the other hand, thanks to their personal gas bubble, the Dutch are not reliant on Russian gas as long as they are willing to tolerate the earthquakes.
Another reason why Fit For 55 is a decent plan is that it not only focuses on finding green alternatives for not-so-green energy sources, it is also aware that Europe has to become more energy efficient. For instance, one key sector where a lot of improvement can be made is the building and construction sector. From the homes of everyday people to the offices in Berlaymont, our buildings waste energy and lots of it. This is mainly because many existing buildings in Europe are rather old, and not up to modern isolation standards. Modernising these buildings can make Europe much more energy efficient. Of course, this is just one example. But it is promising that the EU is aware of this fact and is pushing member states in the right direction.
The financial side
Apart from only focussing on green alternatives, the EU also has to consider the increase in energy prices. Since last year the price of energy has surged greatly and this trend has only been bolstered by the war in Ukraine. Several countries have done their best to relieve the burden on consumers, for instance by compensating households with below average income.
Securing energy supplies and increasing energy efficiency will also help with lowering energy costs. However, for some, this is not enough. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has argued that the EU should use the remaining loans of the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This facility had been created to help European communities to get through and recover from the Covid pandemic. There is roughly €230 billion of unused loans remaining, which can be repurposed for short-term economic relief in the energy sector, according to Mitsotakis. Whether the Commission will act on this proposal is unclear. So far, it has opted at finding solutions through reduced VAT rates at national levels, and guiding member states on how to do this efficiently without disrupting the Single Market. But limiting the rise of energy prices is not without risk as it might disrupt the objectives of the Green Deal if they continue for too long.
Back to Russia?
The question remains whether Fit For 55 specifically and the Green Deal in general, will be enough. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission was quick to announce that it wishes to become energy independent from Russia by 2030. In May, the Commission will propose a full plan on how to make this happen. But is this really sufficient?
Sadly, the best answer that I can give you is: ‘it depends.’ With the current measures, it is quite likely that the member states of the European Union will be able to generate enough energy through renewable sources and other alternatives, to no longer have to import gas or oil from Russia. It is also probable that this will be a reality by 2027, as is the goal according to Ursula von der Leyen, especially because it is easier to phase out Russian oil and gas than fossil fuels altogether. Therefore, there are roughly five more years to go. Five more years of European governments fuelling Russia’s war effort. This could be considered a long time, particularly if you consider the amount of damage Russia has been able to bring forth in only a month.
But it is clear that the EU has become set on crippling Russia’s economy as retaliation for the invasion. Don’t forget that oil and gas exports make up a large part of the country’s GDP. So the clock is ticking for Putin.
Is this enough retribution for the invasion? That’s a question you will have to answer for yourself.
Picture credits: Jason Woodhead