As the shadow of conflict in Ukraine threatens to turn the EU’s energy crisis into a real disaster if Russia cuts gas supplies, it’s worth reflecting on how we got here.
Who is responsible for this state of precariousness, why is our energy system so vulnerable and how can we prevent it from happening again?
Russia has been exporting fossil gas to Europe since the late 1960s. While oil and gas discoveries in the North Sea and the Netherlands enabled some European countries to be largely self-sufficient in the 1970s , European gas production has been falling steadily since the early 2000s and is currently at historically low levels. (Today, Europe imports almost 90% of all the fossil gas it uses.)
Europe has long been the main destination for Russian gas exports due to investment by Gazprom, Russia’s majority state-owned energy company, in an extensive network of export pipelines to former Soviet countries. , which then facilitated exports to Western Europe.
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Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, G7 energy ministers met in Rome to discuss how to wean Europe off Russian gas. Their plan was simple: replace it with imports from other countries.
Eight years later, the EU depends more than ever on imports of fossil gas from Russia. Russia’s overall import volume has steadily increased from 115 billion cubic meters in 2014 to 169 billion cubic meters in 2019, according to Eurostat data.
We are no closer to the energy system that Europe needs – a system in which unpredictable fossil gas prices cannot drive millions of people into energy poverty, lead to the highest inflation rates since creation of the euro and blowing up government budgets. in order to protect those most affected.
It’s not for lack of opportunities to change course. At key times – when the EU could have agreed to tougher laws that would have accelerated a phase-out of gas – the fossil gas industry has done everything possible to slow down the path of progress.
The Russian invasion of Crimea was not the only major issue on the political agenda in 2014. The EU was also in the process of agreeing its climate and energy targets for 2030. A fierce row broke out over the question of whether the EU should continue to set a trio of objectives – that is to say reduce carbon emissions, boost renewables and stimulate energy savings – or set a single objective and allow the European carbon market to reduce emissions.
The fossil gas industry, led by Shell, has argued that Europe should abandon its targets for renewables and energy savings altogether, saying they make the transition more expensive. Fundamentally, from Shell’s perspective, removing these targets and setting a single overall climate target would push coal out of the electricity market and allow an expansion of fossil gas to replace it.
But that would do little to boost renewables or spur building renovation, two key measures to reduce gas consumption in Europe. Meanwhile, climate organizations were calling for three targets for 2030 – including 45% of total energy from renewables and a 40% reduction in energy consumption (compared to projected energy consumption in 2030 ) – precisely for these reasons.
While the EU eventually agreed to set a 2030 renewables and energy savings target, both targets were set at a shockingly low 27%. In fact, the 27% renewables target represented a slowdown in deployment compared to the 20% target that had been set for 2020. The EU also decided to scrap binding renewables targets for each member country.