Pipeline segments with the Gazprom logo

Europe’s emergency plan to break free from war-fuelling energy

Russia’s war against Ukraine has increased urgency in the EU to phase out fossil fuels, starting with cutting off our dependency on Russia. This critical moment in Europe’s history allows no half-measures, nor more fossil alternatives. Accelerating the transition towards renewables is the only way forward to secure Europe’s energy independence and freedom.

The European Union is imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia for its military aggression in Ukraine and, at the same time, funding Putin’s war through daily purchases of Russian gas and oil.

This baffling paradox has put Europe in front of the shameful mirror of its energy system, one that is heavily dependent on climate-wrecking fossil fuels imported from authoritarian petro-states. The European Union is still the main energy customer for Russia —about 46% of the EU’s natural gas and 25% of its crude oil supplies came from the Russian Federation in 2021.

On the Russian side, oil and gas make up close to 40% of the federal budget revenue and 60% of exports. The Russian fossil fuel industry, therefore, has been a key provider of the Federation’s military budget and has been fuelling not only this war but also conflicts in Georgia and Syria.   

It is the ruthless military intervention against Ukraine that has finally pushed this long-standing awkward gas marriage to the forefront: suddenly, EU leaders are unanimous in their urgency to break Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels. 

Every kilowatt-hour of electricity Europe generates from solar, wind, hydropower or biomass reduces our dependency on Russian gas… which also means less money for the Kremlin’s war chest”, said the European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen in her speech to the European Parliament this week. “We will not abandon the defence of human rights and freedom because we are dependent on Russian gas”, added the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell.

However, Russian threats to peace and democracy across the region are not new, and the list of human rights abuses has been growing longer as the EU increased gas imports from Russia from 25 to 40% in the last ten years. Although the EU turned a blind eye when Russia razed Grozny, invaded Georgia and bombed Syria, it seems that the bloc’s leaders are at last showing their readiness to not trade human rights for Russian oil and gas.

Now the question is how we will make it, and here is where Europe stands at a crossroads, facing a choice between further lock-in on fossil fuels or other polluting forms of energy, and scaling up solutions that reduce energy consumption and are based on renewable energy supply.

The answer should be clear: there are enough compelling climate, social and security reasons to accelerate the energy transition towards a fossil fuel-free grid in Europe. With the FitFor55 package and the recovery funds, the European Union is facing the right window of opportunity to overcome decades of addiction to fossil fuels.

Don’t call Russian fuel green

The European Commission’s proposal to include fossil gas and nuclear energy in the list of green investments is today, and by all means, a reckless step that must be rectified.

Not only does the green classification of gas and nuclear not hold up from an environmental or climate perspective, but it also jeopardises the EU’s efforts to become energy independent. Europe can no longer afford to divert much-needed billions of financial resources away from renewables, energy efficiency and electrification to new costly and harmful fossil-gas and nuclear-power infrastructure.

The Nord Stream 2 case is a glaring example of the risks these shaky multi-billion-euro investments entail. This 1,230 km gas pipeline was built across the Baltic Sea to double the capacity to pump gas from Russia to Germany and it was expected to be working this year until Berlin halted its authorisation in light of the escalating Ukraine’s conflict. Today, the company which built the Nord Stream 2 recognised its bankruptcy and Germany will have to decide whether to continue fuelling the Kremlin’s budget with more gas purchases or write off the €9.5 billion spent on the pipeline.

Europe cannot continue digging these cash holes at the expense of the green transition, and the same holds true when it comes to nuclear power. New investments in nuclear power plants are extremely costly and have been shown to require 20 years to become operational. What is even more troubling is that Russia is one of its main investors in Europe and dominates the European nuclear fuel market, especially in Eastern Europe.

Hungary is planning to expand its only nuclear power plant by making a €12.5 billion deal with the Russian state-owned corporation Rosatom and financed by a €10 loan billion from Russia. Bulgarian nuclear reactors at the Kozloduy power plant are filled with Russian nuclear fuel, nuclear waste is exported to Russia and the country is counting on two new Russian nuclear reactors, which were ordered and delivered, but have remained unused for three years. 

More nuclear power will not make Europe more energy-independent as Member States will need to also rely on shady Russian partners such as Kazakhstan, the world’s largest uranium exporter and a loyal ally of Russia which has been recently helping its government to repress citizens’ protests across the country.

Another significant concern is that nuclear power stations and nuclear waste storage sites are at great risk in military conflicts, and Ukraine’s war is proving it. The world has stood in terror as Russian troops seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant by military means, causing a fire in the building during the attack.

If more gas and uranium would only increase our dependency on Russia, the European Parliament can only do one sensible thing now with the Commission’s proposal on the taxonomy: reject it to start over again. MEPs will need to muster an absolute majority over the next few months to achieve this, an important decision that will define the future of the EU.

Europe’s turning point

It has never been clearer than now that the solution to this energy crossroads is the same one as to the climate crisis: the rapid rollout of energy savings measures, renewables and support to the electrification of sectors heavily reliant on gas and oil, such as heating and transport.

There is no room for giving more ‘carte blanche’ to the fossil industry and their greenwashed fake solutions. For too long, fossil fuel companies have been actively undermining European efforts to phase out fossil fuels and now are trying to take advantage of this crisis by pushing for alternative import routes for the supply of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), reopening disused coal plants at home, using hydrogen produced or blended with gas or using directly fossil gas as ‘bridge fuels’ and undermining the EU ETS.

Europe must be assertive, we do not need more investments that involve gas and oil. Our Paris Agreement Compatible energy scenario proves that a direct switch from coal-based power to large-scale renewables is technically feasible and the only way to try to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the middle of this century. 

Moreover, this energy scenario carried out together with Climate Action Network Europe shows that by embracing bold energy efficiency measures and renewable heating, the use of fossil gas could be phased out by 2035 and the use of oil products by 2040. 

The latest IPCC report, published this week, tells us that if we keep delaying climate action we “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” That window in the EU is called the European Green Deal and it is our last chance to achieve massive emission reductions in the coming years while getting rid of the environmental, political and economic burden of our dependency on fossil fuels.

To reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C, the EU needs to set a renewable energy target of at least 50% in gross final energy consumption, and a target of 45% for energy efficiency, both by 2030. There is no longer any excuse for the EU not to push for these targets in the Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII), the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) and the Energy Performance for Buildings Directive (EPBD).

It’s time to step on the accelerator of the energy transition and the Commission and national governments must ensure that no one is left behind by making the most of the recovery funds and climate policies revenues.

Europe stands at a decisive turning point within its history. European governments have a responsibility to mobilise extraordinary budgets and industrial capabilities to promote unprecedented energy savings programmes and renewable power rollouts, right now. A future based 100% on renewables is possible by 2040 and is the only way forward to secure a liveable, free and peaceful future for the next generations.