European Leaders Frustrated With Geopolitics Slowing Progress Toward Clean Energy Transition
ISTANBUL — There was candor and heated conversation as the Atlantic Council convened in Turkey this week for a conference to discuss next steps in the clean energy transition. Leaders from government, business and research communities gathered to take stock of global developments, including how geopolitical crises have created a spike in oil and gas prices, supply disruptions and inflation.
“We might not have enough gas to get through this winter and we might not be able to pay for it,” Matthew Baldwin, deputy director-general to the directorate-general for Energy of the European Commission told Atlantic Council attendees during the conference’s opening session, despite touting gains made by the EU to diversify resources, reduce demand in the short term and accelerate a green energy transition.
Given defining political events of the year — of which the Russian invasion of Ukraine was paramount — as well as OPEC’s decision to cut oil production by two million barrels per day, volatility has put finding reliable and acceptable sources of energy in direct conflict with countries’ urgent decarbonization goals.
It is unclear how Europe will cope with energy security concerns while also meeting zero-emission targets, but Baldwin remains implausibly optimistic.
“We’re down to about 7% of our gas coming from Russia at least on pipeline. We’ve managed to replace an incredible amount of gas over the course of this year with LNG mainly from the United States… and also with pipeline gas coming from other sources,” Baldwin said. “But we need to do so much more.”
He said this was why the European Commission published the REPowerEU plan that would promote “energy security on the one side, affordability… and not forgetting sustainability for this minor existential crisis we call climate change.”
The plan contains a suite of measures to phase out Russian fossil fuels by 2027 and boost the EU’s renewable energy production and energy efficiency measures.
Alongside that, in late July of this year, the commission issued another plan setting out recommendations for member states to take coordinated action to control energy demand — or voluntarily reduce natural gas demand by a target of 15% from the beginning of August 2022 to the end of March 2023.
This plan has literally been dubbed the “Saving Gas for Winter Plan.”
“We’ve never pretended that we weren’t going to need gas,” Baldwin said. “Yes, we’ve talked a lot about the Green Deal — and no apologies for that because we have to send the signal…We’re going to need gas all the way up until 2050. We need the gas, we just need it from different places. We’ve got to end our crazy dependence on gas coming from Russia.”
Alongside all of that, Baldwin asked: “Can we accelerate our transition towards the green promised land? The answer is yes.”
Ana Palacio, former minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, not only laughed and called it an “intellectual oxymoron” to use the term ‘green’ when talking about gas, but called Baldwin’s energy optimism a “tall order.”
“I think the green thing is very ideological,” Palacio said. “What we need first and foremost is decarbonization and not to do strange contortions to call gas ‘green.’”
But moreover, Palacio expressed frustration with certain E.U. member states creating their own dependence on Russian gas, which has now affected the entire alliance.
“In the end, we have been working … on three assumptions, none of them were true. One is that there is a European energy union … and that we could go toward renewables … the third was that nobody was telling us how hooked we were on Russian gas.”
“And the chickens came to roost,” she said. “Absolutely.”
Still, Palacio warned that now is not the time to give up on European decarbonization goals.
“When you are in a crisis, you cannot set aside your ambitions, even if those ambitions seem extremely difficult to reach,” she said.
“For countries like Ukraine, there is nothing we can replace [gas] with to heat our homes,” Olga Bielkova, director of Corporate and International Affairs at Gas TSO of Ukraine, reminded.
“Yes, I want to see it decarbonized. Maybe my kids will,” she said. But until the infrastructure can be built for this to happen, Bielkova pushed for the E.U. to have energy “rules.”
“One country cannot and should not be allowed to be overdependent on one source of supply. And no more than 1/3 of your critical energy source [should be] delivered with political agreements,” she said.
Not only does she suggest finding a way to replace Russian gas with new sources, but she hopes Ukraine can be a solution to bring stability to Europe and the region at large.
“Despite the very difficult moment of our history, we see ourselves as a solution to many energy problems in Europe,” Bielkova said. ”Imagine this war is miraculously over, do you think we could go to business as before in terms of energy? I don’t think so.”
Additional Atlantic Council in Turkey conference talks centered around nuclear reactors for developing countries, hydrogen’s role in the clean energy transition, and financing the phase-out of coal.
Kate can be reached at [email protected]