Averting crisis, Europe learns to live without Russian energy

By | March 17, 2023

Paul Hockenos writes:

When a cold snap hit northern Europe last November, ordinary citizens and industry leaders alike feared the onset of an agonizing winter of deprivation, spiraling energy prices, unheated buildings, and work stoppages. After all, embargoes in place as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had severely curtailed oil and gas deliveries to many countries and upended supply chains that much of Europe had come to rely on.

Germany — whose industrial economy depended heavily on Russian fuel — scurried to revive its mothballed coal-fired power plants, construct liquefied natural gas terminals, and secure new gas supplies from across the world. Painful though it was to European environmentalists, efforts to slash emissions took a back seat to making it through the winter by any means necessary.

But defying the grimmest of projections, Europe made it through the temperate winter with remarkably few casualties — and even with a few big wins to its credit. The effort may have displaced Europe’s climate aspirations by a fraction, with 17 of Europe’s resuscitated coal plants belching out 16 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2022. But thanks to a record rollout of renewable energy sources combined with conservation measures, the continent’s emissions footprint actually positioned the EU to remain within reach of its goal to slash emissions by at least 55 percent in seven years’ time. In a year when planetary emissions edged upward, Europe is now on track to comfortably outpace its pledge to generate 40 percent of its total energy from renewable sources by 2030.

“We did it!,” proclaimed Germany’s daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung, in late February. “No freezing, no unrest, no mass bankruptcy. Russia’s weaponizing of gas has been disabled. Germany and Europe have bought themselves valuable time.”

“We were damn lucky,” says Karsten Neuhoff of DIW Berlin, an economic research institute, qualifying the newspaper’s bravado by pointing to the unseasonably warm winter, China’s ebb in gas demand, which freed up resources for Europe and kept prices lower, and the restarting of some of France’s nuclear reactors, which had been offline for maintenance or repairs, in January of this year.

In terms of climate protection, Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent Finnish research organization, says that Europe, despite all the hardships caused by the war in Ukraine, took a giant stride in 2022 — the result of extraordinarily high fossil fuel prices, which spurred energy conservation, faster-than-ever deployment of clean tech, and ramped up EU policies. “This portends Europe’s nearly complete phaseout of coal and a substantial reduction in natural gas generation in the power sector by 2030,” says Myllyvirta. “We’re moving in that direction now.” [Continue reading…]

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