A new awareness of Europe’s energy insecurity has been unleashed. Sky-high energy prices soared again on 22 February in response to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, and further spiked with Germany’s consequent decision to shelve certification for a new gas pipeline between the two nations.
Owned by a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned Gazprom, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would have extended Europe’s energy reliance on Vladimir Putin. Russia already supplies almost 40 per cent of all Europe’s natural gas imports, and last year Gazprom held off auctioning extra gas in Europe despite high demand, helping push up prices everywhere.
Worryingly, Russia has already responded to this latest sanction from Germany with a warning of increasing price hikes to come: “Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2,000 for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas!” Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian prime minister and current deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, taunted in a tweet.
And even in the UK where energy reliance on Russia is minimal at just 7 per cent of gas imports, the situation is likely to worsen. According to Jess Ralston, from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, “any hope that the gas crisis hammering UK families and businesses would gradually subside during 2022 has been dashed by the Russian invasion.”
[See also: How Europe is dependent on Russian gas]
Yet even as such fears swirl, it is important to be clear that the root cause of the crisis is not the pausing of Nord Stream 2, but rather the underlying dependence on gas itself.
The new Nord Stream pipeline is not yet operational, so pausing it will have no direct impact on Europe’s immediate energy supply, said Maria Pastukhova, a senior policy adviser at the E3G think tank. Furthermore, Gazprom is likely too dependent on the European market to risk defaulting on its existing contracts, she explained, and Europe has a large enough quantity of imported liquid natural gas (LNG) to see it through the rest of the winter.
“Nord Stream 2 was a bad idea from the start. It was designed to divide Europe and undermine Europe’s climate policy,” added Sascha Müller-Kraenner, of Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany), a leading environmental NGO that in 2020 took legal action against the German regulator that issued the permit for the pipeline.
What could still be in danger, however, is next winter’s gas supply. If Russian imports were stopped, a state of emergency would be ignited, Pastukhova suggested.
[See also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]
One proposed solution has been to increase the proportion of imported LNG by sea from places such as the US, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Nigeria and South Korea. But experts are sceptical. It would take a number of years to build the infrastructure required to make up the shortfall, and once built, would still leave Europe open to price volatility in the face of competition from China.
The import of yet more gas would also soon come into direct conflict with Europe’s proposed emissions reduction targets: Germany has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2045, while the EU expects to reduce its natural gas consumption by more than 25 per cent compared with 2015 levels in order to meet its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target.
The best solution, therefore, lies in nothing short of an accelerated clean energy transition. Moving as quickly as possible to implement the measures proposed in the European Green Deal is the answer, said Pastukhova – via increased energy efficiency, doubling down on renewables, and introducing new technology, such as heat pumps, as well as increased financial support for those who struggle most with energy bills.
It is a sentiment echoed by a swathe of green-minded analysts, campaigners and politicians across Europe. “This [Ukraine] crisis shows that Europe is still too dependent on Russian gas. We have to diversify our suppliers and… massively invest in renewables,” said the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on 22 February. “This is a strategic investment in our energy independence.”
Plus, it is one that has particular pertinence regardless of the decision on Nord Stream 2. In the UK, the government is currently consulting on continuing to license new gas and oil fields, and some have argued that such exploitation is the answer to insecure supply – but as Chris Saltmarsh, co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal, pointed out, “the best way to deliver energy security is to rapidly transition to a clean energy mix.” Meanwhile, in Europe, the construction of other gas infrastructure continues apace, warned the Greenpeace EU climate campaigner Silvia Pastorelli.
The climate crisis alone should have shown that green energy, not gas, is the future. But having failed to do so, geopolitical tensions may now provide the wake-up call Europe (and the world) so desperately needs.