Will conflict delay or encourage Europe's green energy plans?

Rising energy prices in Europe are driving increased pressure for fossil fuel production

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By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Tue 7 Jun 2022, 10:57 PM

When Ursula von der Leyen and a new administration took the reins of the European Commission in the fall of 2019, climate change was clearly the top long-term priority.

Termed the European Green Deal, her signature programme included the creation of new ministries at the executive arm of the European Union and vast sums set aside for funding.

The ambitious initiative calls for a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 and climate neutrality by 2050, when the plan says the level of damaging emissions emitted and volume absorbed would reach equilibrium.

Yet the years since she took office have been far from usual. A global pandemic has shaved half of global GDP growth and disrupted supply lines across the planet in addition to its terrible human toll.

The Russian incursion into Ukraine has now added another hurdle as energy supplies to Europe are far more costly and far less secure.

In the short term, the easy solution to soaring energy prices and scarcity could be to suspend new climate-related limits and fall back on previous sources, even polluting coal.

Austria is considering delaying the imposition of higher carbon taxes in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, while some leaders in Germany are even admitting that the country might have to return to coal for now.

“If we want to be more independent, we will have to operate with coal,” Olaf Lies, the energy minister of Lower Saxony, said out loud during a recent conference, stating what many were likely thinking. “Coal will play a crucial role.”

So does the Ukraine conflict put Europe’s ambitious plans to fight global warming on hold or will uncertainty over energy provide yet more motivation to move away from fossil fuels? In the short term, the answer could be a de-facto suspension of efforts and enforcement, whether the result of governments or market forces.

According to analysts, rising energy prices in Europe are driving increased pressure for fossil fuel production from existing or recently decommissioned plants.

In short, Europe is left with an energy emergency that cannot be quickly solved. The pieces are available for a more independent and environmentally friendly energy future, but it will take some time to more fully assemble them.

More infrastructure to accommodate renewables will take time to deploy, while efforts to diversify supplies of fossil fuels pose new logistical hurdles. The conundrum is demonstrated by the amount of gas Europe continues to buy from Russia – more than $46 billion since the Ukraine conflict began – despite its vow to isolate Russia financially.

But the current conflict could provide great impetus for change. Often it takes disruptive events to truly reorder how humans – very much creatures of habit – do things.

Historians say innovation in the use of energy has been the result of conflict for more than 100 years. Naval wars accelerated a shift from wind to coal-powered ships, while WWI ushered in a move from coal to oil. Of course, WWII culminated with the use of nuclear weapons and the Cold War engendered wider use of that newly unleashed nuclear energy as a major power source.

But can the current disruption push change fast enough for the coming winter? As Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany is again instructive to illustrate the challenges.

Germany has long banked on Russian gas to fuel its homes and factories, and even as climate change initiatives were made, its projections said it would continue with Russian gas until carbon-free alternatives come online.

“Natural gas was seen as a bridge into the clean energy future,” said Matthias Buck, Europe director at think-tank Agora Energiewende. “That bridge has broken down. That’s reshaping the discussion.” Germany has now rescinded approval of the $11 billion Nordstream 2 pipeline that was nearly completed when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Just days after Russia crossed into Ukraine, Germany immediately accelerated its climate targets and added $218 billion to expedite the new agenda. Its goal is a 100 percent renewable power supply by 2035 rather than in 2050.

“What has changed now is everyone realizes we need to ramp up renewable capacity even faster,” said Buck of Agora Energiewende. “The conflict is making it very clear that if you want to control your own fate, it’s better to prioritize renewables and end reliance on fossil fuels.”

Among a range of measures, the new German incentive package encourages citizens to install rooftop solar panels while new commercial buildings will be required to have them. The federal government is also pressuring states to relax laws that ban windmills within a kilometer of existing buildings, rules that made it hard to site new turbines in the densely populated country.

The change in thinking is so profound that even rules governing the iconic German autobahn could be modified. In car-crazy Germany, the superhighway with no speed limit was almost sacrosanct.

Before the Ukraine conflict “Germans were fifty-fifty on the idea” of setting a speed limit, Volker Quaschning, professor of renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, told the press. “Now two-thirds say it’s a good idea. The same goes for the use of fossil heating or diesel cars, or the installation of more wind power. There has been a big change in public opinion.”

Opinion is one thing and staying warm in winter is another. As Germany and the rest of Europe juggle options to get through the year, few feel secure in the short term, an unfamiliar position in the well-planned, highly organized region.

Many leaders and citizens vow it won’t happen again. Steady, renewable and reliable energy is even more compelling today, certainly one of the top priorities of them all. Disruptive change is now accelerating progress toward that goal, and along the way, reaching closer to a net-zero carbon future

- Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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