By Nicolò Palmieri
The Ukrainian conflict represents a multi-faceted crisis. It also involves geopolitical and energy-related dimensions. Namely, the geopolitics of energy demand and supply in the EU-Russia relations is at stake. This blog post seeks to understand if minor EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels may reinforce the EU sanctions against Russia today and the diplomatic action regarding the human rights and the rule of law situation in Russia tomorrow. Nevertheless, this blog post does not aim to assess what sources used towards the green transition are truly sustainable.
Among others, Giorgio Arfaras, a member of Limes’ Scientific Committee, held that sanctions on Russia tackle the Russian export capacity and thus adversely impact the Russian economy (Limes Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, 2022). Yet, the EU economy is interconnected with that of Russia. Hence, how can the EU reach minor energy dependence on Russia? The European Green Deal package seems to be a key asset in this regard.
The EU Green Deal and its geopolitical value
The European Green Deal is the major policy package through which the EU seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 (European Commission, n.d.-a). One of the three policy goals is to make the EU the first carbon-neutral continent worldwide. The EU Member States pledged to shrink emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels (European Commission, n.d.-b).
As Lee-Makiyama highlights, the European Green Deal explicitly states the aim of making Europe a geopolitical power through sustainability. He also shows how ‘energy supply diversification lies at the heart of European security and political autonomy against some powers’ (Lee-Makiyama, 2021, p. 8). Indeed, the European Commission points out the main principles guiding the clean energy transition, which is one of the Green Deal’s scopes of action. These principles are three: ‘ensuring a secure and affordable EU energy supply; developing a fully integrated, interconnected and digitalised EU energy market; prioritising energy efficiency, improving the energy performance of our buildings and developing a power sector based largely on renewable sources’ (European Commission, n.d.-c). As seen, the energy security factor is crucial.
Based on Eurostat 2019 data, almost three-quarters of the EU energy system is dependent on fossil fuels. Oil dominates the EU energy mix (34.8 percent), followed by natural gas (23.8 percent) and coal (13.6 percent). Renewables are growing in share, but their role remains limited (13.9 percent), similarly to nuclear (12.6 percent) (Leonard et al., 2021, p. 3). This situation will entirely change by 2050, should the European Green Deal be successful. Yet, such a change will be gradual.
According to European Commission projections, fossil fuels will still provide about half of the EU’s energy in 2030 (Leonard et al., 2021, p. 3). Most of the changes regarding oil and gas will occur between 2030 and 2050. This shift from fossil fuels to other energy sources will entail geopolitical repercussions. Changes to the European energy market and the European approach to energy security will mostly impact countries in the European neighbourhood, such as Russia and Algeria. Global players, including the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia, will experience the impact even more through the Green Deal’s effect on global energy markets and trade (Leonard et al., 2021, p. 10).
The EU Green Deal and the current EU-Russia relations
As to the geopolitical repercussions on EU-Russia relations, Lee-Makiyama argues that ‘energy diversification has an important by-product, namely EU strategic autonomy. It may even go as far as diminishing Russia’s overall importance on the world stage: Russia’s relevance depends by and large on its ability to effortlessly create problems for the European powers’ (Lee-Makiyama, 2021, p. 8).
In the light of the current crisis in Ukraine, Kadri Simson, the European commissioner for energy, stated that 'the current situation underlines again that the clean energy transition is the only way forward: the challenges we are facing now are the result of our dependency on fossil fuels — in particular on Russian gas. The answer is more green energy, not less' (Storrow, 2022).
At the same time, one should consider Stefan Ulrich’s stance, a European gas associate at BloombergNEF. He held that: 'I think Europe is seeing that it’s very hard to shut down coal and in some places nuclear and then not have gas go up'. 'Even with the strong renewable build-out we’ve seen in Europe, especially during the winter you need that thermal generation to meet your energy demand.' (Storrow, 2022)
Similarly, Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at Bruegel, stated that: 'the question about what […] [longer-term disruptions in gas supplies] mean for the longer-term development of Europe’s energy system is extremely relevant because we might have a situation that requires us to do things in the short term that are not leading to the long-term path that we envisaged for the energy system here.' (Storrow, 2022)
Geopolitical repercussions beyond EU-Russia relations
Beyond EU-Russia relations, the above-mentioned geopolitical repercussions affect the EU’s energy security in other ways too. In particular, when the EU diversifies its supply chain alongside investing in energy sources other than fossil fuels, it should also pay attention to other energy security risks. Indeed, as Leonard, Pisani-Ferry, Shapiro, Tagliapietra, and Wolff warn, these risks consist of importing the minerals and metals needed to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, li-ion batteries, fuel cells, and electric vehicles (Leonard et al., 2021, p. 8). Some of these minerals and metals are widely available and quite easy to extract. Others are either geographically concentrated in a few resource-rich countries or treated and processed in a few countries. Among these countries, China accounted for around 60% of the critical materials supply to the EU from 2010 to 2014. Consequently, the authors suggest that the EU should improve the security of critical raw materials supply and decrease dependence on China by deploying an apt foreign policy action plan. (Leonard et al., 2021, p. 18)
In conclusion, the outbreak of war in Ukraine will influence EU choices in the energy security and geopolitical fields. Energy diversification and the green transition in the EU can make it less dependent on Russia’s fossil fuels. Thus, more room for political and economic manoeuvres can emerge vis-à-vis the Russian Federation. Despite this potential advantage, it is essential for the EU not to make the green transition process render it exposed to new geopolitical and energy security risks in the future.
Written by Nicolò Palmieri
Cover picture courtesy of: Nicolò Palmieri
Nicolò Palmieri holds a master's degree in 'Human Rights and Multi-Level Governance' from the University of Padova, as well as a with-honours bachelor's degree in 'Scienze Politiche e Relazioni Internazionali' (Political Science and International Relations) from the Sapienza University of Rome. Currently, he is a Blog and LinkedIn Content Creator & Editor and SEO & Analytics Developer at SET Padova since November 2021.
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European Commission. (n.d.-a). A European Green Deal [Text]. European Commission. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en
European Commission. (n.d.-b). Delivering the European Green Deal [Text]. European Commission. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/delivering-european-green-deal_en
European Commission. (n.d.-c). Energy and the Green Deal [Text]. European Commission. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/energy-and-green-deal_en
Lee-Makiyama, H. (2021). The EU Green Deal and Its Industrial and Political Significance. European Centre for International Political Economy. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep29234
Leonard, M., Pisani-Ferry, J., Shapiro, J., Tagliapietra, S., & Wolff, G. B. (2021). The geopolitics of the European Green Deal (Research Report No. 2021/04). Bruegel Policy Contribution. https://www.econstor.eu/handle/10419/237660
Limes Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica. (2022, February 22). Ucraina-Russia: Il fronte del gas e dell’energia. Caro bollette e geopolitica - Mappa Mundi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6k-5gYL-6s
Storrow, S. S., Benjamin. (2022, February 7). Europe’s newest climate change problem: Russia. E&E News. https://www.eenews.net/articles/europes-newest-climate-change-problem-russia/