When President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine in late February — bombing apartments, hospitals and even a nuclear power plant — he upended the same energy system that is indirectly bankrolling his illegal war.
Four of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies promised to pull out of Russia, abandoning more than $20 billion (€18 billion) in assets. Germany, its biggest customer, stopped a ready-to-go pipeline that would have directly brought it Russian gas. The US slapped sanctions on all Russian fossil fuels, while the UK said it will stop buying Russian oil. The EU announced plans to slash Russian gas imports by 80% this year and phase out the rest, including coal and oil, by 2027.
Now energy markets are in one of their deepest crises of price and supply in decades, and “we don’t know how much further this will develop,” said Maria Pastukhova, a Berlin-based expert on the geopolitics of energy transitions at climate think tank E3G.
Europe’s frenzied bid to kick its addiction to Russian gas is speeding up its transition to clean power — while at the same time pushing it toward fuels it must phase out to keep global temperatures from spiraling higher. It comes as a landmark scientific report from the United Nations warns that any further delay in climate action will miss a “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
Within two weeks of the Russian invasion, the EU announced plans to install wind turbines, solar panels and heat pumps faster than ever before. Germany committed €200 billion to decarbonize its electricity supply by 2035. But at the same time, the bloc’s largest economy promised to build two liquefied natural gas terminals as part of a continental push to replace Russian gas with fossil fuels shipped from elsewhere. Sky-high gas prices and fears that Putin could suddenly turn off the tap are also threatening a comeback of coal, a dirtier fuel that leaders had promised to dump.
“There’s an opportunity to catalyze this to drive forward the clean energy transition very rapidly,” said Hannah Daly, a lecturer in sustainable energy at University College Cork in Ireland. “But there’s also dangerous signals that policies will work in the opposite direction.”
Replacing Russian fossil fuels
Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of oil and fossil gas. Since the start of the invasion, it has sold the EU more than €11 billion in fuels that are burned to heat homes, power car engines and generate electricity.
A puzzle for policymakers is securing enough fuel for next winter if that supply stops.
If an embargo is coming or Russia cuts off gas, then we would burn more coal and see higher emissions in the short-term, said Georg Zachmann, a climate analyst at Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel. “But we will also massively install renewables and heat pumps, and we will be through the transition faster than we initially planned for.”
The EU has put forward a twin strategy for reducing its dependence on Putin’s gas: Bringing forward green investments while swapping Russian gas for fuels from other countries. The bloc plans to ship 50 billion cubic meters of LNG each year from countries like Qatar, Egypt and the US — which extracts two-thirds of its gas through fracking, a more environmentally destructive form of production. The EU wants to get another 10 billion cubic meters from pipes to countries like Azerbaijan, Algeria and Norway.
Unlike oil, which can be cheaply shipped around the world in its natural state, gas needs to be transported via pipelines or cooled down to extremely low temperatures that allow it to be carried in liquid form on special tankers.
But building new terminals to receive LNG shipments, as Germany plans to do on its northern coast by 2026, risks locking in a dependence on fuels it will have to abandon to keep temperatures from rising. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the terminals would later be repurposed to receive shipments of hydrogen — a fuel that can be made cleanly with electricity from renewable sources — but experts have cast doubt on whether this is technically possible.
Cutting demand for gas
More than one-third of the EU’s planned gas savings this year come from policies to cut demand for fossil fuels — building more solar panels and wind turbines, making buildings more energy efficient and installing heat pumps. By the end of the decade, such policies should account for twice as much.
But these numbers are “completely meaningless” unless they’re underpinned by real change on the ground, said Jan Rosenow, European director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, an organization working to decarbonize the power sector. Concrete actions, he said, should include an overhaul of permitting processes for renewable energy, a shift in subsidies from gas boilers to heat pumps, and a public information campaign to save energy at home.
So far European leaders have largely avoided talking about the last one. “I understand why they don’t,” said Noah Gordon, a climate expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank. “Asking people to moderate their consumption is terrible politics, even in rich and relatively green Europe.”
The thermostat in the average EU home is set to more than 22 degrees Celsius (71 degrees Fahrenheit) and turning it down 1 C would reduce demand for gas by 7%, according to the International Energy Agency. Turning it down a couple of degrees more — and putting on an extra jumper and slippers — could save as much gas as the IEA expects LNG markets to provide.
A handful of politicians have spoken out in favor of personal changes.
“If you want to hurt Putin a little then save energy,” said Germany’s economy and climate minister, Robert Habeck. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen echoed the sentiment to German public broadcaster ZDF: “We can all contribute to becoming independent from Russian gas, let alone fossil fuels, by saving energy.” The EU’s top foreign policy official Josep Borrell explicitly addressed the need to adjust temperatures in a speech to the European Parliament: “European citizens need to turn the heat down in their houses.”
All the experts interviewed for this article stressed the need for individual actions to be encouraged as part of a structural shift in how the continent heats its homes and generates electricity.
The new plans to ramp up renewable energy investments, install heat pumps and insulate buildings “should have happened much, much earlier,” said Pastukhova, from E3G. “And this is now the lesson the EU has to learn the hard way.”
Edited by: Tamsin Walker