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21st Feb 2024

It's not easy being green — and cutting Russian gas

  • The EU already imports 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, but certain countries such as Estonia, Finland, Bulgaria, Latvia or Slovakia are particularly reliant on Russian imports (Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org)
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The European Union unveiled plans Tuesday (8 March) to cut reliance on Russian fuels but quickly bumped up against concerns it was substituting one form of pollution for another.

The proposal to diversify energy supplies also quickly ran into another challenger: Russian deputy prime minister Alexander Novak, who threatened to cut gas supplies to Europe via Nord Stream 1, a pipeline running from Russia to Germany.

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Novak said Russia could take such action to "mirror" penalties imposed by the Europeans on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, including the German "ban" on the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and a possible forthcoming EU embargo on Russian oil.

The main element of the proposal made on Tuesday calls for gas storage levels to be raised to 90 percent capacity by 1 October, from their current level of 30 percent.

To that end, the EU commission announced that it will support joint procurement for member states - as it did for the Covid vaccine strategy.

Brussels is also considering stepping up its gas imports from other countries such as Azerbaijan and LNG imports from the US, Qatar or Egypt.

But there are growing concerns that the EU's push for alternative gas sources will simply lead to burning of the most-polluting sources as Russian gas gets phased out.

"In this situation, there should be no taboos," Frans Timmermans, the EU climate chief, told a press conference on Tuesday.

Timmermans reiterated last week that reducing Russian gas supplies could mean burning coal for longer — a previously unthinkable move that's nonetheless under discussion in countries like Germany.

But environmental groups such as Greenpeace have said it makes little sense to phase out only gas since Europe is also heavily dependent on Russian coal imports.

"The best way to stop funding the war machine, and accelerating the climate crisis, is to invest massively in energy efficiency and renewables, consigning to history all fossil fuels and the destruction they cause," said Silvia Pastorelli, a campaigner from Greenpeace.

The EU already imports 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, but countries such as Estonia, Finland, Bulgaria, Latvia or Slovakia are even more reliant on Russian imports.

And the difficulties involved in balancing Europe's energy with the need to diminish buying fuels from Russia are expected to be a centrepiece of the EU summit later this week.

How to "phase out our dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal imports" is on the agenda of the leaders' meeting in Versailles, France, later this week, according to draft summit conclusions.

Other proposals made Tuesday to reduce the EU's dependency on Russian gas include boosting energy efficiency, increasing volumes of biomethane and renewable hydrogen, and accelerating the roll-out of renewables.

But there are concerns here, too.

The capacity for EU member states to boost offshore wind farms and roll out large scale solar projects is limited in the short term, and Europe cannot talk about the "renewables revolution" when it takes around seven years to get a permit to build a wind park, said EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson.

Simson said she would come forward with a recommendation for faster permitting in May.

"The real question is how fast we can build both renewables and energy efficiency," said the influential Green lawmaker, Philippe Lamberts.

Also in the proposal: the EU wants to build up its resilience against volatile energy markets, where gas prices have been skyrocketing.

EU member states would be allowed to regulate electricity prices for vulnerable groups; use revenues from the EU carbon market to support households; and spend more on energy without breaking the bloc's anti-subsidy rules.

National governments would also be able to temporarily tax windfall profits made by energy companies as a way to enable reinvestment in greener alternatives.

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