Science

Europe's path away from Russian oil and toward renewable energy is paved with a dirty reality

As Europe vows to kick its reliance on Russian fossil fuels in response to Moscow's weaponization of its energy supply, climate advocates hope it could spur a more rapid transition to renewable energy. But experts say it won't happen overnight.

Climate experts hope short-term reliance on 'dirty' energy will be a stepping stone to renewables

Wind turbines turn behind a solar farm in Rapshagen, Germany, in October 2021. Russia's demand that certain 'unfriendly' countries that have supported Ukraine start paying for natural gas in rubles or have their supply cut off has added new urgency to Europe's plans to reduce — and ultimately end — the continent's dependence on Russian fossil fuels. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

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As Europe vows to kick its reliance on Russian fossil fuels in response to Moscow's weaponization of its energy supply, climate advocates hope it could spur a more rapid transition to renewable energy. But experts say Europe's immediate priority is keeping the lights on, and that might require relying on dirtier sources of energy, at least in the short term.

The European Union was already bracing for Russian escalation tactics when state-owned energy giant Gazprom announced that it would shut off the flow of natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria in April unless they began paying for it in rubles.

Just a month earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine prompted the EU to release a roadmap to make itself independent from Russian fuels "well before 2030." At the time, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen committed to accelerating the transition to clean energy and diversifying gas supply to Europe by next winter.

Since then, surging energy prices and Moscow's use of its fossil fuel supply to apply pressure on Ukraine's allies has only further crystallized the need for Europe to find alternative sources — and fast.

Von der Leyen is now warning "the era of Russian fossil fuel in Europe is coming to an end" and has released a proposal to hit back at the Kremlin by phasing out of Russian crude oil.

WATCH | EU proposes total Russian oil ban, but notes 'it won't be easy':

EU proposes total ban on Russian oil in new round of sanctions

2 months ago
Duration 4:10
The chief of the European Union has proposed a phased-in oil embargo on Russia, as well as sanctions on its top bank and a ban of Russian broadcasters from European airwaves.

Tackling 'multiple crises at the same time'

The energy security crisis will almost definitely spur the EU toward more rapid transition to sustainable energy sources in the long term, according to Chris Bataille, an associate researcher with the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, a Paris-based think tank.

"It just, flat out, will speed up the move [to renewables]," Bataille said. 

The International Energy Agency has released a 10 point plan, which outlines how the EU could reduce Russian gas imports by more than one-third within a year if it accelerates the deployment of new wind and solar projects, speeds up the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps, and replaces Russian supplies with gas from alternative sources, among other measures.

But Bataille notes that's not a transition that can happen overnight. Europe may have to resort to some "dirty alternatives" in the short term, as it weans itself off Russian fossil fuels, he said.

"Unfortunately we might see more burning of coal just to keep plants going," Bataille said, adding that older nuclear plants might also be kept online longer than originally planned. 

Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager with Climate Action Network Canada, said that while "war never brings ideal outcomes," he believes the situation created by Russia has revealed something important. 

"I think what the war helped us realize is our vulnerability. How vulnerable we are to a fossil fuel economy."

Pérez said the ongoing climate crisis combined with the energy security crisis created by the war has only underscored the need to decarbonize the energy grid. 

"We can tackle multiple crises at the same time," he said.

Europe faces a crossroads: Status quo vs. renewables

The general consensus among Bataille and other policy experts is that the European Union's next steps will likely come in two main phases. In the short term, there's an urgent demand to replace Russian energy imports to avoid a full blown supply crisis in the shadow of Moscow's escalation. 

Longer term, EU leadership has acknowledged the pressing need to transition to renewable and cleaner sources of energy in order to address climate change. Bataille said the eventual move to more diverse, and mainly renewable, energy sources will have a stabilizing effect on global economies because it will help eliminate the highly variable costs of importing fossil fuels.

Renewable energy, however, costs major capital investments and requires time to build new infrastructure.

So in the short term, Bataille said Europe will be "in a very tight spot for the next few years," as it looks to cut its reliance on Russia's cheap bulk fuel.

The European Union imports about 90 per cent of its natural gas, and Russia provided about 45 per cent of those imports, as well as about 25 per cent of oil imports, according to the latest figures from the EU

As a replacement, the EU has been looking at shipping in liquid natural gas from other countries including Algeria, Qatar and the United States. Germany, Europe's largest economy, is looking to rapidly build new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals as it turns away from Russia's supply.

Climate policy experts caution that Europe's answers to its immediate energy needs must not further entrench the status quo.

There's a line to be drawn, Perez said, between Europe leaning on other sources of natural gas to solve its current supply crunch, and actually expanding the natural gas industry and infrastructure.

"We need to start harnessing our agency and our ability to make good choices, to change in a deliberate way," said Elisabeth Gilmore, a lead author of one of the working groups for the latest IPCC report, and a senior scientific advisor for science and technology at Environment and Climate Change Canada. 

"If not, these changes will be foisted upon us."

Reduce fossil fuels 'as rapidly as we are able to'

The situation is unfolding with the backdrop of a looming climate disaster.

The world has reached its now-or-never moment if it wants to avoid surpassing 1.5C warming above pre-industrial levels, according to the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In its latest update, the IPCC made it clear that, in order to avoid a future of severe climate disruptions and extreme weather, the world must reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. 

"As a longer-term strategy, especially where we are now, we have moved to a point where we need to reduce our usage of all hydrocarbons," Gilmore said.

"We are looking at how to deeply decarbonize. That means reducing all forms of fossil fuels as rapidly as we are able to."

Ships are loaded and unloaded at the port of Brunsbuettel, Germany, on March 1. European governments are rounding up more liquid gas that can come by ship instead of by pipeline from Russia, as countries scramble to reduce dependence on Russia. (Frank Molter/dpa/The Associated Press)

Bataille, who was also a lead author on the latest IPCC report, agreed. "Europe needs to go to net zero." He said the EU already is one of the most ambitious jurisdictions in terms of climate policy, and countries will likely look to multiple sources as part of that transition, including wind, solar, and nuclear. 

How late is too late?

Bataille said he estimates that Europe will be able to fully wean itself off dependency on Russian fossil fuels within the next three-to-five years. But completely decarbonizing the energy sector completely will take much longer.

When pressed to answer how late is too late, Gilmore said it's impossible to give a specific timeline.

"Nothing we can give you, scientifically, is going to tell you that in five years plus one day it's too late," she said. 

A man refuels his car at a service station in Sofia, Bulgaria, on April 21. Rising energy prices in Europe are testing the resolve of those caught between a dependence on cheap Russian energy and their opposition to Moscow's war in Ukraine. (Valentina Petrova/The Associated Press)

Jonathan Stern, the founder of the gas research program at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said it's important for leaders to weigh the impact on citizens, as well. He said leaders need to consider how much more immediate, upfront costs both governments and citizens can bear, especially in the context of COVID-19 recovery.

"The quicker the transition, the more the immediate cost," Stern said. 

"If Russia cuts Europe off then negative consequences can be blamed on Putin. But if European governments decide to disconnect from Russian energy, there is the possibility that voters will blame politicians," he said. 

Though he did note the long-term costs of climate damage would be reduced by a more rapid transition to renewables.

The lesson here, Bataille said, is that relying so heavily on a single country for energy supply is a risky bet.

"It wasn't healthy for Russia, because it basically turned it into an autocratic petrostate, and it wasn't healthy for Europe to be dependent on just one major supplier for such cheap, bulk fossil fuels," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaela Bernstien

Journalist

Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and human rights for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at jaela.bernstien@cbc.ca

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