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A dirty road ahead as Europe paves path away from Russian oil and gas

Pipes at the gas transmission point in Rembelszczyzna near Warsaw. Poland and Bulgaria are now receiving gas from their EU neighbours after Russia's state energy giant Gazprom turned off the taps, the European Commission President said on April 27. Picture: Janek Skarzynski/AFP

Pipes at the gas transmission point in Rembelszczyzna near Warsaw. Poland and Bulgaria are now receiving gas from their EU neighbours after Russia's state energy giant Gazprom turned off the taps, the European Commission President said on April 27. Picture: Janek Skarzynski/AFP

Published May 18, 2022

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Climate experts hope that Europe's short-term reliance on dirty fuels will be a stepping-stone to growing long-term renewables.

Climate activists believe that Europe's pledge to reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuels in reaction to Moscow's weaponisation of its energy supply will accelerate the shift toward renewable energy.

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However, analysts believe that keeping the lights on is Europe's most urgent priority, which may necessitate depending on dirtier energy sources in the near term.

The European Union (EU) was braced for further escalation tactics when Russian state-owned energy producer, Gazprom, stated in April that it would cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria unless they began paying in Russian rubles.

Shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU released a roadmap of how it planned to free itself of Russian oil and gas “well before 2030.”

EU Commissioner, President Ursula von der Leyen, at the time, committed to accelerating the transition to clean energy and diversifying gas supply to Europe by the end of 2023.

A lot has happened since then. Rocketing energy prices and Russia’s use of its seemingly endless fossil fuel supplies as a bargaining chip proved to embolden Europe's drive to establish alternative sources fast.

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Chris Bataille, an associate researcher with the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, a Paris think tank, told CBC News that the energy security crisis would spur the EU toward a more rapid transition to sustainable energy sources in the long term. "It just, flat out, will speed up the move toward renewables.”

The International Energy Agency has released a 10-point plan, which outlines how the EU could reduce Russian gas imports by more than a 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.

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But Bataille noted that the transition could not happen overnight. Europe might have to resort to some "dirty alternatives" in the short term, as it weaned 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.

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