How Europe's response to Russia's war in Ukraine could shape the climate change future

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cast a harsh light on Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, but how Europe acts to wean itself from Russian gas, coal and oil could either help or harm the effort to avert catastrophic climate change in the crucial years ahead.

On March 8, the European Union announced plans to reduce Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year, in large part by increasing its importation of gas from other countries. The EU also aims to stop buying Russian gas well before 2030, in part by accelerating its adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Europe’s search for new sources of oil and gas to power its economy and heat its homes has drawn condemnation from climate activists. “Rather than stop bankrolling Putin’s war and end Europe’s addiction to fossil fuels, our governments have decided to go despot shopping,” Greenpeace EU director Jorgo Riss said in a March 24 statement. “But switching fossil fuel supplies from Russia to Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia, while shielding Russian uranium exports to Europe from sanctions, will not bring peace and security.”

Joe Biden
President Biden at the White House on Tuesday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden jointly announced with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on March 25 that the United States and Europe would collaborate on increasing U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe, as well as increased energy efficiency and technology deployment to reduce European demand for fossil fuels. Due to the high energy demands of liquefying, shipping and re-gasifying natural gas, LNG has a higher carbon footprint than conventional gas.

Although the measures to reduce fossil fuel use would reduce emissions, the plan to increase transatlantic LNG trade — and potentially to enable that effort with new infrastructure such as pipelines in the United States and terminals for the exportation and importation of LNG on both sides of the ocean — raised red flags among American climate activists. “President Biden is going to regret siding with Big Oil and Wall Street over communities and the climate,” said Kate DeAngelis, international finance program manager at Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

While the desire to cease trade with Russia could provide a helpful impetus for clean energy development, global leaders also have warned that building new infrastructure for the importation of oil and gas from other countries could lock in fossil fuel dependence — and the high emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change — for decades to come.

“Major economies must keep short-term measures from creating long-term fossil fuel dependence,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a March 22 tweet.

Prior to the Feb. 24 invasion, the European Union and its 27 member states were already at work on transitioning to renewable energy. They were well ahead of their counterparts in North America. There are 5,400 wind turbines along European coastlines, compared with just seven offshore wind turbines in the United States.

All rich countries, which are the primary contributors of carbon emissions, need to rapidly reduce their fossil fuel use if they are to meet their goal of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that hitting that target will require reducing global emissions by 45% by 2030.

In the near term, that’s bad news for climate change because Europe is trying to replace Russian gas with gas from other sources. But looking to the future, experts say Europe can actually expedite its transition to clean energy.

“Clearly, the path to greater energy security in the long term is to transition away from fossil fuel dependence, and that’s not just true for the Europeans,” Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the U.N. Foundation, told Yahoo News. “I also do appreciate that we’re in a very challenging near-term situation, where there aren’t bold, quick fixes off the shelf in the immediate term.”

A drilling rig in the Irkutsk region of Russia
A drilling rig in the Irkutsk region of Russia. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

“In the coming weeks and months, the outlook is grim,” wrote Jos Delbeke, EIB climate chair at the European University Institute, along with two researchers from the university, in a recent op-ed. “Measures from suspending the phase-out of old nuclear power stations, to the ramping up of LNG (liquified natural gas) purchases from a wider range of supplier countries, and even a heavier reliance on the use of coal and lignite in power generation are all part of the answer. The latter risks reversing the decade long decline in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, but it should be temporary, allowing for Green Deal-aligned diversification to gather steam.”

Germany, for instance, is moving its target date for phasing out fossil fuels in its electricity portfolio from 2040 to 2035, as it seeks to more rapidly increase wind and solar power. To that end, it is setting more ambitious targets for wind and solar development between now and 2035, and it has suspended the expiration of solar subsidies.

The United Kingdom has announced it will end imports of Russian fossil fuels this year. Earlier this month, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — a conservative whose record on climate change is often criticized by activists — pledged to “double down” on renewable energy and make a “series of big new bets” on nuclear power.

The key question remains how to ensure that replacing Russian gas, which comes through a pipeline, with LNG from other continents is only temporary. Experts say the answer is to avoid building new fossil fuel infrastructure. A recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that Europe had gotten itself into its current predicament by building so much fossil fuel infrastructure, such as gas pipelines from Russia.

A destroyed shoe factory
A destroyed shoe factory in Dnipro, Ukraine, on March 11. (Emre Caylak/AFP via Getty Images)

“Europe has to find a way to solve its own situation right now, and it’s the dependency on natural gas itself,” Ana Maria Jaller-Makarewicz, IEEFA’s energy analyst for Europe, told Yahoo News in late February. “Why so much dependence on gas? Forget Russia: gas itself?”

Jaller-Makarewicz said Europe’s energy security problems will not be solved merely by switching its natural gas supplier from Russia to friendlier nations. “Today it is a political situation, but in two years’ time it could be a weather situation, it could be another situation,” she said. That’s especially true as climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heavy storms, floods and cold snaps that may interrupt energy supply.

So instead of merely diversifying its energy providers, Europe needs to diversify its energy sources, with low-carbon sources like wind and solar playing a larger role and electric heat pumps replacing gas-burning home heating systems. “I am very positive about energy efficiency mechanisms: Try to use less gas, or less energy,” Jaller-Makarewicz said.

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