Can the Ukraine war finally convince Europe to fully embrace renewables?

For some time now, EU governments have been pushing for natural gas and nuclear energy as an essential part of the energy transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuels like coal and oil. But since Ukraine was invaded, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has triggered a sudden push towards energy independence, mainly via renewables. It’s increasingly looking like Putin’s invasion may succeed in pushing Europe towards renewable energy.

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In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said renewable energy is “crucial” for the EU’s energy security and Finance Minister Christian Lindner called for renewables “freedom energies.” Meanwhile, in France, Barbara Pompili, Minister for Ecological Transition, said that ending the dependency on fossil fuels, especially Russian ones, is essential.

In response, the Stand with Ukraine coalition, which groups hundreds of organizations including environmental groups like Greenpeace, said a ban on Russian energy imports would step one in a path to end fossil fuel production. They called for “bold steps” towards global decarbonization and for a transition to “clean and safe” renewables.

The EU imported 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia in 2021, almost half (45%) of its gas imports and nearly 40% of the total amount used, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the war has largely disrupted this. Now, the European Commission is expected to present an updated energy strategy, which will likely give renewables a larger role.

The race to end this Russian dependence will likely require boosting imports from countries like the US and Qatar in the short term, and will likely lead to more domestic fossil fuel production. However, this doesn’t have to be the path ahead, climate experts argue, suggesting energy independence via clean energy such as solar and wind. The most likely option is a mixture between the two.

No more illusions

Europe has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, reaching net zero emissions by 2050. According to preliminary data, EU emissions dropped 10% from 2019 to 2020 – strongly related to the Covid-19 pandemic. By comparison, EU emissions declined 4% from 2018 to 2019. Despite being one of the more ambitious climate pledges around, it’s still nowhere near what is necessary if we want to avoid the worst of climate change effects.

If Europe wants to rid itself of Russian fossil fuels, it will need some sources oil and gas — but focusing on renewabls is the smart long-term bet, researchers emphasize.

The argument that Europe could limit its dependence on Russian gas by focusing on local fossil fuel sources and importing liquid natural gas from the US is neither realistic nor cost-effective, according to the think tank Carbon Tracker. It would require decades to build new gas decades and source local deposits, meaning price pressures won’t be solved right away.

By contrast, solar and wind energy sources can be significantly scaled up as part of existing decarbonization policies. This would be more cost-effective because of the large drop in renewable energy prices. The think tank Wuppertal Institute released a study this week showing how heating in the EU could run completely on renewables by 2013 thanks to electric heat pumps.

Meanwhile, the IEA came up with a road map to help deal Europe in its energy transition. The plan would reduce the bloc’s dependence on Russian natural gas by one-third in just one year while delivering on the bloc’s climate pledges. It’s a collection of actions designed to diversify the energy supply, focused on renewables.

“Nobody is under any illusions anymore. Russia’s use of its natural gas resources as an economic and political weapon show Europe needs to act quickly to be ready to face considerable uncertainty over Russian gas supplies next winter,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a written statement announcing the plan.

The recommendations include no renewing gas supply contracts with Russia, which are due to expire at the end of the year, increasing biogas and biomethane supply, storing more gas to have a buffer of security, accelerating the deployment of renewables, protecting vulnerable customers, and improving the energy grid reliability and flexibility.

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