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Europe’s Green Energy Plans Are Threatened by the Need to Wean Itself Off Russian Gas

8 minute read

Until last month, German climate NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany) was dead set against the country building new gas pipelines and import facilities. “We have always argued that we have to get out of fossil energies and not invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure,” says the group’s CEO Sascha Müller-Kraenner. “Obviously, this picture has changed.”

What changed is that Russia, which supplies more than half of Germany’s natural gas, invaded Ukraine, launching the first large-scale European land war in decades and reshaping a diplomatic status quo that has held firm between the region’s major powers since the end of the Cold War. That seismic shift in the continent’s relations to Russia, and the specter of a yet-larger European conflict, has thrown Europe’s energy plans into disarray. Deutsche Umwelthilfe had believed that Germany’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure, including gas pipelines from Russia, would be more than adequate to heat homes and keep the lights on in the years before fossil fuels are completely phased out in the country. But in light of the invasion, relying on Russian gas to keep German society humming is starting to look like a very bad idea. “It’s now possible to imagine that inputs will stop completely,” says Müller-Kraenner. “We have to look at the situation we find ourselves in and [see] what options we have.”

With a new understanding of Russia as a geostrategic threat, few of those options have been off the table for the German government. On Feb. 27, just days after Germany canceled an $11 billion pipeline project to bring Russian gas to the country, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged the government’s support for building two massive new facilities designed to offload natural gas from international tankers, supplying Germans with energy that Vladimir Putin doesn’t have the ability to shut off at will. Separately, Germany’s economy minister Robert Habeck, a member of the country’s Green party, suggested that the government could delay plans to close its last nuclear reactors by the end of next year, and may also backtrack on a pledge to close the country’s last coal plants by 2030. The country also plans to speed up its development of renewables. “There are no taboos on deliberations,” Habeck told German broadcaster ARD.

Those moves in Germany are part of a Europe-wide reframing of the assumptions that have underpinned energy policy for decades—namely, that nations on the continent can rely on friendly relations with Russia to keep the lights on. They also come in the midst of an ongoing E.U. transition to renewable energy, which is urgently needed to avert the worst effects of climate change. Now, during what is perhaps Europe’s biggest energy shock in a generation, the way the bloc responds to a new imperative to get off Russian fossil fuels could have dramatic climate consequences—whether to speed the region’s renewable transition, or else lock-in more use of fossil fuels and set back efforts to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Read More: Why Sanctions on Russia Aren’t Targeting Oil and Gas

Currently, the E.U. gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia, but that could soon change. A leaked European Commission energy plan published by Euravtiv earlier this week called on member states to find new sources of gas, in addition to speeding up renewable energy projects. (An original plan due out March 2 was meant to focus on how the bloc could deal with high energy prices, but it was delayed and redrafted following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) In Italy—which gets 45% of its natural gas from Russia—the nation’s largest utility, Enel SpA, has canceled plans to switch the country’s two largest coal power plants to gas. Gas power plants have about half the emissions of coal plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though estimates vary, especially when potential methane leaks are factored in. Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi has also suggested that he may reopen old coal plants to replace fuel delivered from Russia. Even the tiny Czech Republic has signaled that it may try to quit its dependence on Russian fuel, potentially by buying a stake in new German facilities designed to import natural gas from tankers.

For decades, European countries have approached energy under the assumption that the cheapest and most accessible power sources were best, says Paula Kivimaa, a professor of climate and society at the Finnish Environment Institute. That logic led many E.U. states to grow dependent on fossil fuels imported across a network of pipelines from Russia. Now those nations are suddenly less interested in price than they are in national security—and an urgent new task of eliminating Russia’s option of plunging their cities into cold and darkness. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has really created a turning point,” Kivimaa says.

The problem is that a Europe-wide shift away from Russian fuel could lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions. For one thing, natural gas is considered to be a cleaner energy source than coal, and so delays in phasing out coal power plants to supplement lost Russian gas don’t bode well for global emissions. “When we have war on our hands, security concerns outweigh cost considerations, and even climate concerns in the short term,” says Maria Pastukhova, a policy advisor at European climate think tank E3G.

Read more: “A Huge Mistake.” The E.U. Jeopardizes its Climate Goals By Labeling Natural Gas as Green

Some environmentalists are also worried about the carbon cost of bringing more liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe on tankers, since it requires extra energy to transport and there’s potential for leaks along ocean-faring, multi-continent shipment routes. There’s also the likelihood that some of that gas could come from U.S. fracking operations, which have been responsible for a huge spike in planet-warming methane in the atmosphere in recent years. However, some climate researchers say there’s not likely to be much difference between LNG gas and what’s being piped from Russia, since the country is thought to use old, leaky infrastructure that already emits a great deal of methane. Some accountings even propose that Russian gas could be worse for the climate than whatever comes from the U.S.

Long term, investments in any fossil fuel infrastructure will be bad for the planet. Poland’s last decade or so offers a telling example for the rest of Europe. The country relied on Russian natural gas up until 2009, when Russia shut off gas through Ukraine due to a pricing dispute amid poor relations following the 2004 pro-Western Orange revolution. With gas dwindling in the midst of a bitterly cold Polish January, leaders in the country began to reconsider their dependence on pipelines from the East. Over the following years, Poland started weaning itself off Russian fuel, building a billion-dollar facility to import liquified natural gas (LNG) via tankers from countries like Qatar and the U.S., as well as new pipelines that could transport gas from the West instead of the East. With its natural gas supply no longer a geopolitical liability, Polish public and private utilities have announced plans in recent years to step up gas usage as part of a coal draw-down, building five new gas power plants over the next five years to more than double the country’s gas infrastructure. If those plans come to fruition, it will be impossible for Poland to fulfill its net-zero CO2 commitments by 2050, according to a February report from Carbon Tracker, an energy transition think tank.

There are worries that something similar could now be happening in Germany. Tim Gore, head of low carbon and circular economy at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, is concerned about the possibility that Germany’s move to build new facilities to offload LNG could serve to extend the life of natural gas. “If you’re going to invest a load of money now in building out LNG, isn’t there then a risk that it will serve to lock in reliance on gas rather than moving toward alternatives like electrification?” he says. Moreover, such new infrastructure might not even be ready for years, prompting questions of what kind of geostrategic benefits the projects would have.

Still, there’s also a possibility that the turn away from Russian gas could actually accelerate a drawdown of E.U. emissions, particularly if leaders focus on simply cutting gas usage overall. That would mean, for example, taking measures to replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps and rolling out renewable energy to replace gas power plants—two directives of the E.U. energy plan, at least in its leaked draft form. “There’s an interest in looking at LNG as a near-term, essentially emergency measure,” says Gore. “But strategically, this isn’t a fundamental pivot in the European Union away from the green transition.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com