As Russia resumed its supply of natural gas to Germany after weeks of what it called “maintenance” on its Nord Stream 1 pipeline, leaders in Berlin breathed a sigh of relief. A day earlier, US President Joe Biden chose to defer declaring a climate emergency, which could have unleashed a wave of resources to fight the crisis, despite his opponents torpedoing his plans.
At the same time, Europe more widely is devouring enormous amounts of liquefied natural gas – a harmful fossil fuel – imported from the US and other allies to temper its reliance on Russian energy. Europe is also returning to coal, the most carbon-heavy of fossil fuels.
All this while the northern hemisphere swelters through a summer of extreme heat. More than 100 million Americans are under heat alerts as a heat wave spread further and further afield. They are forced to stay home or seek air-conditioned venues until the heat passes. Germany has had its hottest day of the year. Greece is literally putting out fires around its capital.
Yet Germany and Netherlands are upping their coal use. Greece’s state energy company said last week it would delay its coal exit by another one to two years. Even Austria, which stopped using coal for power in 2020, is preparing to reopen a mothballed plant in case of a winter emergency.
Countries committed to fighting climate change are being cornered into pushing the issue to the back seat as Russia’s war exacerbates a global energy crunch and a cost of living crisis.
And ironically, the climate crisis is worsening energy shortages in a vicious cycle. Extreme heat is causing some power plants to buckle, forcing blackouts, even in homes that rely on air conditioning to keep temperatures tolerable.
Just about everyone in the northern hemisphere is talking about air conditioners. Those who have them are cranking them up. Many who don’t are thinking about buying them. That requires more energy, usually from burning fossil fuels, and so the cycle goes on.
But there is reality to what energy sources are available here and now. Slow action on the green transition in the past means there simply aren’t enough renewables for a quick fix.
“We’re going to have to swallow some uncomfortable options in the short term to get through this winter,” said Tara Connolly, a senior gas campaigner with the NGO Global Witness.
Europe’s climate paradox
In Europe, where scorching temperatures broke records in the UK and left hundreds of millions sweltering on the continent, this week’s heat wave has exposed deficiencies in how prepared some countries are for extreme weather.
“The current heatwave should be driving more action,” said Lisa Fischer, program leader at London-based environmental think tank E3G. “It affects productivity, it affects the functions of the economy … that feedback loop hasn’t been understood in the past.”
The effects of the climate crisis are visible almost wherever we look: Several days of unusually warm weather in northern Greenland have triggered rapid melting there, and globally, hot-temperature records are outpacing cool records by 10 to 1, according to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But Russia’s war and the global energy crisis that followed has nonetheless forced a paradoxical approach from European leaders in recent weeks: While governments are returning to dirtier fuels to get through their immediate energy woes, they’re also rushing for renewable energy sources to reduce their reliance on Russian gas and mitigate the climate crisis.
To reduce its reliance on Russian gas, the European Union on Wednesday unveiled an emergency rationing plan. The “Save Gas for a Safe Winter” plan announced sets a target for the 27 member states to reduce their gas demand by 15% between August and March next year. That reduction is based on countries’ average gas consumption during the same months over the previous five years.
Among the proposed measures, the EU Commission is encouraging industry to switch to alternate energy sources – including coal where necessary – and to introduce auction systems that compensate companies for reducing their gas consumption.
“We’re seeing an acceleration on clean energy … what has previously been seen as climate action has become part of the energy security conversation,” Fischer said. “(And) it’s remarkable that the European Green Deal hasn’t been dropped or abandoned” amid this turbulent period, she added.
Connolly said it was an “absolute shame” that it took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more intense climate crisis impacts and an energy poverty crisis all at the same time to get Europe to speed up its green transition.
“The one silver lining is that the energy transition in Europe will accelerate as a result of this,” she said.
Yet the return to fossil fuels is worrying. Governments insist they are temporary, but they can be hard to trust.
Earlier this month, EU lawmakers approved a measure to label natural gas a “green” or “sustainable” source of energy, sending a signal to investors to pour more money into the fossil fuel. Connolly called the vote “damaging in terms of the reputation of Europe, and to Europe’s attempts to phase out gas.”
And as Europe imports more and more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from places like the US, it becomes more and more addicted to it as an energy source. The continent is importing so much of the energy source, it is having to build new floating terminals just to receive it. It may wean itself of Russian gas for good reasons, but it’s not weaning itself of gas in general for the sake of tackling climate change.
All this comes against a backdrop of ramped-up coal production in China – which produced more coal than ever last year as its power stations struggled to meet demand for electricity, undermining plans to curb carbon emissions. There too, 900 million people are living through a punishing heat wave that is expected to go on for weeks to come.
Connolly said that a temporary return to coal in this energy crisis was understandable.
“But what is the longer term?” she asked. Climate groups are urging European governments to prioritize sustainable investments now in order to establish a cleaner blueprint for the continent that does not rely on Russia.
“By the winter after next we’ll have had three years to make big strides on developing our energy saving technologies – insulating buildings and homes – and building out renewables as quickly as we can,” she said.
World watches Biden’s moves
As temperatures soared in the United States this week, President Biden spoke to the country Wednesday about the urgency of the climate crisis and renewed a discussion there around declaring a so-called climate emergency.
Biden previewed actions his office could take to tackle the climate crisis and announced billions of dollars in funding for communities facing extreme heat. But the US President said he was “running the traps on the totality” of his authority to issue a national emergency that would unlock new federal resources and allow him to limit federal oil drilling.
The pace of Biden’s response left climate experts and advocates underwhelmed.
He “took useful but small-bore climate actions” on Wednesday, climate activist Bill McKibben wrote on Twitter. “The bigger test: will he declare a full-on climate emergency … The next weeks will be crucial.”
And much of the world is watching Biden’s moves with interest. The US is the world’s biggest carbon emitter and bears the biggest historical responsibility for the climate crisis. Though Biden pledged to cut US emissions in half by 2030, his climate agenda was torpedoed last week by a senator from his own party, Joe Manchin – a coal-state representative who has resisted the President’s climate goals.
“We need the US to step up, not only purely for the climate’s stake but because climate cooperation is one of the few areas of multilateral cooperation that is still working, and working well,” Fischer said. “It’s one of the few areas that we have China and others around the table and working with others, and that’s incredibly important.”