Will the lights go out in Europe if Russia invades Ukraine?

As tensions continue to grow over Russia’s military build-up on its border with Ukraine, the EU is trying to dampen down fears about potential impacts on gas supplies and energy bills. 

As my colleagues Ido Vock and Nicu Calcea wrote last week, Europe remains highly dependent on Russian gas. A decision by Moscow to invade Ukraine could reduce supplies, put extra pressure on energy systems already under strain and send prices spiralling further. 

EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson spent the weekend trying to reassure European energy ministers meeting in Amiens, France that should the worse come to pass, all would be well.

“Europe has a robust, well-diversified and resilient gas infrastructure and clear procedures on solidarity in case of emergencies,” she told ministers on Saturday (22 January). “But we need to remain extremely vigilant, improve our risk-preparedness and reinforce solidarity between the member states.”

In 2020, EU gas imports fell 9 per cent compared with the previous year, and Europe’s reliance on Russia decreased a little. Nonetheless, the country remained the bloc’s top supplier, accounting for 43 per cent of imported gas, followed by Norway and Algeria. The five biggest net importer countries were Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Belgium. Post-Brexit Britain imported 32 billion cubic metres of natural gas in 2020, slightly more than Spain – though the UK sourced less than 3 per cent of its gas from Russia last year.

Simson wants to further diversify European gas imports to reduce reliance on Moscow. In recent years, the EU has increased imports of liquefied natural gas from the US and from other countries such as Qatar. The EU-US Energy Council in Washington, DC in February is likely to include discussions around this option. Improving coordination between European countries around gas storage is also an EU priority.

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The commissioner was clear, however, that breaking the gas addiction and switching to cleaner energy sources were, in the longer term, the sole viable option.

“The only lasting solution to our dependence on fossil fuels and hence volatile energy prices is to complete the green transition,” she said. “Renewables are already, in many places, the most affordable energy sources and that trend will continue as technology develops. Renewable energy is also, as a rule, local and comes with fewer security of supply risks.”

Julian Popov, a UK-based Bulgarian energy expert, believes a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is “highly unlikely”. But whatever happens, Moscow “would be crazy to cut gas supply lines. They are a vital source of revenue for Russia. It would be economic suicide,” he added. And once Europe starts relying on alternative sources for gas, they won’t go back to Russia, insisted Popov.

But an energy and climate expert the New Statesman spoke to in Kyiv was less sanguine. “In any scenario, from full-blown war with the use of heavy weapons and extensive infrastructure damage to an orchestrated coup with the establishment of a fully pro-Russian puppet government, Europe’s energy security will suffer a heavy blow if the Russian invasion in Ukraine goes forward,” he said.

Rather than losing ground, an invasion could see Russia expanding its influence on the energy markets, he suggested. “Losing access to high-volume seasonal gas storage facilities in Ukraine, which now are operated in compliance with EU legislation, will make gas markets in Europe more vulnerable to Russia’s hold on supply volumes and costs.”

[See also: Why green policies aren’t to blame for fuel poverty]

As for the electricity market, any invasion would interrupt the planned synchronisation of Ukraine’s grids with Europe’s, he said. “This will hold off the energy transition and a coal phase-out in the region. In the long run, the successful invasion and occupation of Ukraine will facilitate fossil fuel exports from Russia and bring more economic and political leverages for the Kremlin’s regime. This could derail EU’s declared ambitions towards climate action and the energy transition.” 

A prolonged crisis could have a significant effect on gas prices – not just in the EU and the UK but also globally, said Maria Pastukhova from E3G, a UK think tank. “It is safe to assume that political tensions and uncertainty over the world’s second-largest gas producer will drive prices higher in the short term and add to the overall volatility of the gas prices in the long term.”

With this in mind, it isn’t just Russian gas that the EU should be weaning itself off, said Popov. The climate imperative, today’s “crazy prices” and “the Russian story” should be sufficient reason for Europe to decrease dependency on gas, wherever it comes from, he continued. Fossil gas should become an energy source of “last resort” rather than the backbone of the bloc’s energy system, he believes.

Nearly half of the UK’s gas comes from the North Sea. The current situation is leading some to conclude the country should focus on building up domestic gas rather than on net-zero ambitions. Pastukhova’s colleague Euan Graham said that even with domestic gas supplies, the UK can’t escape the fact it is part of an “interconnected global gas market”. He also highlighted that it takes, on average, 28 years for a new gas field to be opened.

[See also: British homes among the worst insulated in Europe]

Instead, in the short term, the UK, like the rest of Europe, should focus on energy efficiency measures like retrofitting homes and insulating them to decease energy use, he argued. Such measures can be relatively quick to implement, bring down bills, reduce the overall amount of gas needed and slash emissions responsible for climate change. 

“If European nations including the UK had committed wholeheartedly to the clean energy transition in past years and broken their dependence on imported gas, they would now be free to mount a proper foreign policy response while we would be enjoying cheaper energy bills,” commented Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK think tank, on the situation between Russia and Ukraine. 

“That, logically, is one of the lessons governments must draw from this crisis,” he added, insisting the move to renewable energy systems was now a matter as much for foreign and defence ministers as for their climate or environment colleagues. 

[See also: How Europe is hooked on Russian gas]

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