Editor’s Note: Tara Connolly is senior gas campaigner at Global Witness, an international NGO working towards a more sustainable, just and equal planet. She has over a decade of experience in EU energy policy. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As Russian troops remain camped across several of Ukraine’s frontiers, Europe and the United States are scrambling to prevent an incursion, with a flurry of diplomatic efforts and by bolstering their own troops in nearby NATO countries.
Speculation over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions have ramped up from mere threats to actual war, but officials and pundits in Europe are jittery about another threat as well: Moscow could reduce – or even stop – the flow of fossil gas that the continent so heavily relies on.
There has been much talk of what Russia is trying to achieve geopolitically by fostering this reliance – to break up NATO, to split the European Union or alienate the US from its Western allies – but these other concerns are also pressing.
Soaring prices in a power crunch are driving millions of Europeans into energy poverty and the continent’s unfettered use of fossil gas is fueling the climate crisis. The solution should be self-evident – end our reliance on expensive, dirty, and overwhelmingly imported gas. This will require standing up to the powerful gas industry, and right now, far too few politicians seem willing to take this vital step.
This is by no means the first time Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas has been problematic. It was the same story during the last major flare-up with Ukraine in 2014, and Europe’s response – to simply find gas elsewhere – didn’t work then. It isn’t working now either.
In 2013, Russian imports accounted for around 27% of the European Union’s gas use. Instead of reducing reliance on Russia, nine years later, Europe remains more dependent on Russian gas than ever, with 38% of the EU’s supply now being piped from the country.
EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson has been holding urgent meetings with Azerbaijan and Qatar to boost the bloc’s gas supplies. Likewise, US President Joe Biden, a self-proclaimed climate champion, has been trying to ride to Europe’s rescue, and push his own ever-expanding plans for American liquefied natural gas exports.
On a practical level, it’s unlikely the US and its friends would be able to replace Russian gas in Europe quickly and effectively. Recent research by the Brussels-based think tank, Bruegel, concluded that in the event of a rupture in Russian gas, the EU would run short and have to start cutting gas use altogether.
So, if Europe can’t do without Russia for gas, the question must be asked: Why not do without the gas?
Even if the US could bring a cavalry to Europe, more gas isn’t a long-term solution. The flag on the pipeline or ship is irrelevant – it’s Europe’s dependency on the fuel, regardless of where it’s from, that makes it so vulnerable to the vagaries of the global gas market.
Europe’s addiction to gas, and indeed the world’s, will have a deep impact on the future of our planet. The idea peddled by many in the fossil fuel industry that gas can help tackle the climate crisis by replacing coal is false. The International Energy Agency has said that the world should stop adding more capacity for gas if it wants to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In the EU, gas is now responsible for more carbon emissions than coal. According to the European Commission’s own analysis, the continent must virtually eliminate fossil gas by 2050 to help keep global warming to 1.5C, although Global Witness believes it must be gone by 2035. Globally, between 2016 and 2019, fossil gas has been responsible for half of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions, according to data from the Global Carbon Project.
Methane, which can leak from almost every step in the gas supply chain, has more than 80 times the global warming power than carbon-dioxide in the short term. Methane has driven more than a quarter of all global warming to date. Not to mention the health risks attached to gas exposure both for communities near infrastructure and even in homes. A recent study by Stanford University showed, stoves used for cooking often leak methane even when turned off.
It’s not just followers of geopolitical tensions or those in the climate movement that should be concerned with this gas addiction. A sharp rise in gas prices has forced households across Europe into the impossible choice between heating and eating. In the UK, 22 million have been told their energy bills will rise by about £700 ($950) a year, which will hit the poorest the hardest. Recent, but as yet unpublished, figures crunched by the Global Witness data team found that consumer gas prices in the Netherlands and Estonia over the past year have increased by a staggering 62% and 122%, respectively.
As European households suffer, it’s a very different picture for major fossil fuel firms. Shell recently announced its most profitable fourth quarter in almost a decade, posting almost $20 billion in profit for 2021. ExxonMobil and Chevron recorded a combined $38.6 billion in profits last year. With other oil and gas majors set to post similarly strong years in the coming days – including Russia’s own Gazprom, which saw record-breaking Q3 profits – it’s a pointer as to just why politicians continue to back gas, despite all its associated woes.
Even with the tide turning against fossil fuels, many European lawmakers seem to continue to buy into the argument that the gas industry is vital for jobs and growth in their countries, even though the renovation and renewables sectors are already significant contributors to the economy with huge potential.
This is an industry that is directly benefiting from rising gas prices while ordinary citizens fall further into energy poverty and the climate crisis intensifies. It’s therefore no surprise that gas companies are pushing to keep gas locked in, using the two-pronged approach of lobbying and greenwashing. While announcing his company’s highest profits in eight years, the CEO of BP, Bernard Looney, called for even more investment into gas. And it’s clearly having the desired effect.
In December, the European Commission published its proposals to reform Europe’s gas market, in what could have been an opportunity to move towards the phaseout of gas. Worryingly, it chose to lock gas in for years to come, in line with calls from the gas industry.
The Commission’s proposals rest on the impossible assumption that fossil gas infrastructure – like pipelines – can eventually be used with substitutes by nascent technologies like hydrogen. In Europe’s existing networks, however, this would do little to reduce gas use, given most hydrogen is produced using fossil gas. There is little being done to challenge the power and influence of the fossil fuel companies at the heart of the gas market.
Another way is possible, but it requires a monumental shift. The huge political and financial support afforded to the fossil fuel industry needs to be redirected to give a much-needed boost for genuine solutions.
Modeling carried out by the Climate Action Network Europe and the European Environmental Bureau shows that the use of fossil gas could virtually be phased out by 2035. That would require accelerating deep renovations of Europe’s buildings, ramping up the deployment of renewable electricity technologies and the electrification of heating and transportation – all measures that are entirely realistic.
This includes accelerating the deployment of renewable energy, like wind and solar, so that we can replace gas with green electricity. Schemes to renovate large-scale buildings or to insulate homes and replace gas boilers with green heating solutions, like heat pumps and geothermal, would go a long way.
But, outrageously, the majority of the EU’s 27 member states still give more subsidies to fossil fuels than renewables.
Europe’s deep gas dependency is impacting its citizens, the future of the planet and limiting its ability to shield from geopolitical threats. Already, rich big polluters in the gas industry – whether in Russia or elsewhere – are the only ones who stand to benefit from the status quo. European leaders should be putting in place plans to get Europe off gas as quickly as possible. This shouldn’t be a courageous act. It’s just common sense.