The War in Ukraine Reveals Europe’s Reliance On Fossil Fuels And Insufficient Energy Transition

by Enzo Panetta

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February after years of tensions resulted in a series of sanctions adopted by Western powers towards the Kremlin. These primarily economic sanctions have been adopted to hamstring Russia’s economy and indirectly deter war, for fear of direct conflict between nuclear-armed nations. The list of sanctions expands daily as Western powers organise diplomatically and economically. The Kremlin has already deployed measures to hinder the effects of foreign sanctions on their economy with relative success. Moscow also tries to assert its population’s support through tailored propaganda and repression by criminalising any opposition to the conflict and by hindering free press coverage of what the official Russian narrative calls a “military intervention to denazify and demilitarise Ukraine”.

Among the lists of sanctions was Germany freezing further development of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, taken immediately after the Kremlin recognised the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on February 21st. Even though the pipeline is already filled with gas, the move halts the certification process of the €10 million project, initially aimed at countering any energy price crisis. Fossil fuels, being the lungs of the Russian economy, the harshest and most dramatic sanction would logically target this sector, although this would have tremendous implications for the (mostly European) countries relying on Russian fossil fuels. Washington has decided on an embargo and London announced a progressive decrease of its Russian imports. Yet this decision will have lighter consequences for American consumers as the United States is a major producer of gas and oil, whereas the United Kingdom only relies on these Russian imports for 8% of its needs. A similar decision in Europe would be catastrophic in terms of economic and energy security consequences. Even without an embargo, European countries are witnessing rising gas prices building on an existing inflation crisis and higher gas prices weeks before the war. Strictly speaking, banning them would be environmentally good, but if and only replaced by renewable energy which is currently impossible considering Europe’s insufficient solar, wind, and hydropower infrastructures. An alternative would only be importing shale gas from the US, which has significant environmental and health implications, or building more coal plants just like Germany did when they gave up nuclear energy. According to a 2019 report from the European Commission, more than 75% of European greenhouse gas emissions originated in energy production and use, whereas renewable energy accounted for only 17.5% of European final energy consumption in 2017. Energy is therefore a critical aspect of tackling the climate crisis in Europe. Here lies the main problem: Europe’s main energy consumption comes at 36% from oil, 24% from gas, and 14.4% from coal. Environmentally, this is an issue, but the Real Problem: most of them are imported from Russia. This is ubiquitous throughout the Union, and the threat to energy security is not the same in Ireland as it is in Finland. Slovakia imports four out of five barrels of oil products from Russia. Numbers clearly indicate a dependence of Europe as a whole on Russian fossil fuels for electricity production, heating, transport…

One of the main criticisms of renewable energy is its lack of reliable and stable energy production. This is true to some extent. Solar energy cannot work without the sun. Wind energy cannot work without wind. But is European reliance on Russian gas reliable and stable for the continent’s energy prices and security? Buying gas from Russia provided the Kremlin with the financial means to unleash their forces in Ukraine, as former French president François Hollande pointed out, even though Europe condemns this war. In addition to the humanitarian and moral implications of these facts, they’re also very telling of the state of Europe’s persistent reliance on gas for energy production. It reveals the insufficient efforts that European countries have done in transitioning their energy. In comparison, this makes France’s reliance on nuclear energy (17% of final energy consumption against 11% for the EU) enviable, despite the heightened awareness of the danger of nuclear energy in wartime as seen with recent incidents in Ukraine, with the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant bombed by and now under control of the Russian army in spite of international treaties. Renewable energy production does not depend on Russia’s foreign policy, it depends on the elements. Russia does not have a monopoly on the sun. The European Green Deal projects Europe being the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, an objective to be reached via a decarbonisation of the energy sector through the promotion of renewable energy sources. 2050 is still a long way away, and the war in Ukraine has abruptly reminded Europe that slowly reducing the continent’s reliance on fossil fuels might not have been the best path to choose. The EU has since then released an emergency plan to cut this dependence on Russian fossil fuels by half this year. It should be noted that geopolitics, rather than the reality of looming climate catastrophe, inspired the EU’s environmental shift.

The answer to this European reliance on Russian fossil fuels cannot be sourcing them from elsewhere, as proposed by Algeria, nor to drill more into untouched European reserves, as Elon Musk and some American officials have suggested (especially considering the American oil addiction). Natural gas is not a rational alternative, despite lobbyists’ success in making the Commission declare it “sustainable”. Instead, a fundamentally sustainable, moral, and logical answer is to bet on renewable energy sources to realistically slow down our greenhouse gas emissions, steps that should have been taken decades ago. The European Union still has a lot to do if they hope to complete a successful energy transition. In the European Green Deal, national energy plans will be updated next year to reflect the European ambition to decarbonise the sector. The deal also bets on a reduction of 50% of greenhouse gas emissions (from the energy sector) by 2030. Considering the recent IPCC report and our dependence on Russian fossil fuels in times of diplomatic and economic breakdown, maybe the New Green Deal is not ambitious enough. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven that crises leave the best window for systemic and radical change. The energy crisis surging from the Russo-Ukrainian War should make us rethink our sustainability goals more radically, if you can call responsible environmental policy in response to both current and future humanitarian crises “radical”. A problem remains: how to increase, overnight, the deployment and production of renewable energy sources across the Union? Debates on morality aside, if the European Union was able to free up €450 million to deliver weapons to the Ukrainian army, then surely they can free up as much for renewable energy, to speed up current initiatives, design and implement new projects, and invest in the sector more broadly. As always, politicians influenced by the oil lobby will claim there is “no money” available for green investment, the same “no money” currently flowing into international defence companies for the Ukrainian military.

Such measures would start a process of building green energy resiliency capable of enduring the paradoxes and crises of globalised capitalism. Energy security is vital for European sovereignty, defence, and ecological transition. It would also be proof that the European Union can react swiftly to international crises with a united front, beyond individual positions from each member-state on each conflict. Rising prices resulting from the war have hit a European working class already struggling with rising inequalities and prices throughout the Union. Member-States must freeze energy and gas prices to prevent further degradation to quality of life, which is a matter of survival for many across the continent. A similar motion was discussed, and voted down, in the Dáil Éireann. An energy crisis alongside the current housing (and general economic) crisis is not what Ireland needs right now. In early March, EU leaders met in Versailles and recognised the necessity of reducing energy dependencies on Russian fossil fuels. They declared that they would work on: “- speeding up the development of renewables and the production of their key components, as well as streamlining authorisation procedures to accelerate energy projects; – improving energy efficiency and the management of energy consumption, and promoting a more circular approach to manufacturing and consumption patterns.”

This is very promising as the EU also recognises the need to change our consumption patterns by promoting more sustainable production and consumption. Once again, though, it must be noted that European leadership is acting in response to geopolitical threats, rather than as earnest environmentalists.

All talk of environmental policy is trivial compared to the life-and-death struggles the people of Ukraine are suffering through thanks to Putin’s war. Still, the potential energy and economic crisis looming over Europe will destabilise our democratic and social foundations, and of the whole continent. Unstable states make an unstable Union, which in turn could incentivise further Russian ambitions and increased American paternalism. Readying Europe for the energy shock by speeding up our energy transition process is strengthening Europe’s stance to stop the war while fulfilling our duty to tackle the climate crisis.

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