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Strategies for energy security and climate protection are one and the same

EU is finally realizing that it can achieve energy independence by meeting climate goals

July 28, 2014 6:00AM ET

Not so long ago, the consensus in Europe — and across the Atlantic, too — was that hard-boiled energy security didn’t have time for extravagant clean-energy agendas. Every time Russia shut off Eastern Europe’s gas, some spooked nations questioned the logic of trying to meet EU climate goals while simultaneously wrangling energy independence from Putin’s petro-state. Even earlier this year — with Moscow’s springtime annexation of Crimea — some politicians panicked: Suddenly fracking was back on the agenda and Europe was once again grasping for new, short-term fossil-fuel sources and routes.

But Europe’s energy security and climate protection strategies aren’t mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it’s by embracing a far-reaching green-energy transition that it will most effectively — and enduringly — be able to slash energy imports, with their accompanying exorbitant costs. Fortunately, there finally appears to be a shift toward this mentality in Europe, which until now has always seen energy security and climate-related energy concerns as separate issues.

A quick look at Europe’s acute import addiction underscores the dimensions of the problem at hand. At a cost of more than €500 billion a year, the EU imports 88 percent of its crude oil; 66 percent of its natural gas; and 42 percent of its solid fuels, such as coal. Russia supplies Europe with about a third of its oil and 39 percent of its gas, half of which flows through Ukraine. The Baltic and other Eastern European countries are almost entirely dependent on Russia for gas and oil.

Loopy though it may seem to some, enhanced fuel economy standards for cars, insulated homes and businesses and the installation of solar panels and smart grids would do quite a bit to enhance geostrategic energy security vis-à-vis Russia — both in the short and long term. 

Boosting energy efficiency

The obvious place for Europe to start is energy efficiency, which has long been the least sexy and most neglected element in energy security and emissions-reduction schemes. Yet it is the low-hanging fruit, as energy experts have claimed for years, and the cheapest and quickest way to scale back Europe’s demand for gas (primarily for heating). Study (PDF) after study (PDF), including recent EU reports (PDF), shows that existing, easy-to-apply measures to save energy — the retrofitting of residential, public, commercial and industrial buildings; alternative mobility; power plant co-generation; and high efficiency standards for new buildings — could result in dramatic energy savings as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the European countries that are most dependent on Russian imports, such as the energy-profligate Eastern Europeans, have some of the greatest potential to cut consumption — by as much as 50 percent (PDF).

In one study, for example, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research calculated a 41 percent energy savings potential for the EU within a decade were its member countries to make it their business. According to the study, the energy savings potential for industry EU-wide is 21 percent; for residential buildings it is 61 percent; for the service sector, 38 percent; and for transportation, 41 percent. These figures, which roughly match those in other studies, would mean a net savings of €240 billion per year by 2030 on energy bills for homeowners and industry in Europe. 

Binding targets

The key to making these cuts is the institution of binding energy efficiency targets, something the EU has thus far been reluctant to put in place. (In fact, it’s been inexcusably remiss about hitting its own current nonbinding targets.) These commitments must be formulated now as the EU negotiates its 2030 targets — namely, its goals for the 2020–30 decade on renewable energy generation, energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction. Problematically, though, the talks have reached an impasse, most recently at the EU’s energy council meeting in Luxembourg in June, with energy efficiency at the center of the tiff.

Despite some of the knee-jerk reactions to the Ukraine crisis earlier this year, there’s growing momentum to think about climate protection and energy security as two sides of the same coin.

While seven EU states led by Germany and Denmark back an ambitious efficiency target of 40 percent savings (using 2005 as a baseline), there is fierce opposition being waged by other EU nations, including the United Kingdom and most Central European countries, where energy consumption in housing and industry is high — and thus expensive to scale back.

Among the mounting studies and reports recommending green measures in the name of energy security, the newest (PDF), by Greenpeace, based on research by the German Institute of Technical Thermodynamics, maintains that strong EU commitments on renewable energy and energy efficiency could reduce the need for foreign imports by 45 percent by 2030. It advocates the following targets: a 45 percent share of renewables in national energy supplies; 40 percent in energy savings; and a 55 percent drop in carbon emissions. These goals, significantly higher than those initially proposed by the European Commission, could reduce annual gas imports by 35 percent and oil imports by 45 percent. Coal imports could be stopped altogether by the end of the decade.


Supply and infrastructure

Looking beyond efficiency, the second pillar of green energy security is a ramped-up supply of (mostly) locally generated renewable energy — primarily electricity but also, to a lesser degree, gas. In stark contrast to fossil fuels, regardless of their source, the cost of renewable-energy production is, in most cases, nearly zero once the wind turbines, solar thermal and photovoltaic panels or other production hardware is in place. Moreover, it means that revenue and jobs stay at home — palpably boosting growth and the welfare of local communities, just as Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition, has done, creating about 400,000 jobs and nearly €24 billion in annual revenue. Not to be forgotten: The costs of fossil fuels are rising steadily — and are only expected to climb higher as supply wanes — while renewables are getting cheaper by the year.

The final leg of the EU’s green energy-security strategy must be state-of-the-art infrastructure, from intelligent highways and cross-continent transmission grids to storage technology and smart metering. Europe doesn’t need a new Energy Union to make this happen, as some have proposed; the current EU frameworks are entirely adequate. A Europe-wide “super-grid” would help mitigate the EU energy market’s utter lack of integration, which makes it vulnerable to bottlenecks and pricing differentials. (There are effectively 28 gas and electricity markets, 28 regulatory authorities and 28 grid systems across the 28 member states.) There’s also much to be done to connect Europe’s energy systems to the Mediterranean and Scandinavia (and eventually to North Africa and the Middle East). If, say, sun-generated electricity in Spain could be sent to the Baltic coast on a cloudy, windless day, Europe would need a smaller backup reserve of fossil fuels and everyone would share in lower power costs. Economic-crisis-fueled cutbacks have slowed work on a Europe-wide super-grid. But such development must be prioritized or much of the added value accrued by renewables will be wasted. 

Turn to policy

There’s increasing evidence that Europe’s security experts and its best minds on energy are finally agreeing on the path to energy security. In addition to the seven member states pushing the commission for binding efficiency targets, the European Council recently concluded in a paper titled “Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change”:

Geopolitical events, the worldwide energy competition and the impact of climate change are triggering a rethink of our energy and climate strategy. We must avoid Europe relying to such a high extent on fuel and gas imports. To ensure our energy future is under full control, we want to build an Energy Union aiming at affordable, secure and sustainable energy. Energy efficiency is essential, since the cheapest and cleanest energy is that which is not consumed.

This is long-overdue progress in the right direction, the result of a growing pile of evidence and the success of renewables and energy-efficiency measures in some of the trend-setting member states and regions, which include not only Germany and Scandinavia but also Spain, Portugal and even Scotland. Despite some of the knee-jerk reactions to the Ukraine crisis earlier this year, there’s growing momentum to think about climate protection and energy security as two sides of the same coin. The trick now is to turn this realization into policy — a development that wouldn’t escape the attention of an Obama administration increasingly open to the geopolitical logic of sustainability.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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