The energy transition to the challenge of the war in Ukraine

“To limit warming to around 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025, and be reduced by a quarter by 2030,” summarizes the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in the press release accompanying the release of its latest report on solutions to climate change (see opposite).

This call to order comes at a time when the war in Ukraine is upsetting the energy strategy of the Twenty-Seven. For more than a month, the priority has been to put an end to the European Union’s dependence on Russian gas and oil. At the risk of slowing down the efforts made so far? Or on the contrary, could we see the energy transition accelerating?

We are seeing a multitude of measures emerging, and it is too early today to know which way the scales will tip,” summarizes Carole Mathieu, researcher at the Energy Center of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). The final EU strategy will be presented on 18 May. But tracks were sketched out last March. A third of the 155 billion cubic meters imported each year from Russia can be offset by diversifying sources of supply, and in particular by importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States, Qatar or Australia. Another third could be obtained by accelerating the energy transition, through the European climate package (“green deal”): deployment of solar and wind power, massive renovation of housing, installation of heat pumps, control of consumption.

Pending the deployment of these measures, the last remaining third would be obtained by focusing on other energies and in particular coal and oil-fired power stations. Several European countries, including Germany, the Czech Republic or Bulgaria, are already considering an increase in the use of their coal-fired power stations to get through next winter. In France, the Ministry of Energy Transition is considering restarting the Saint-Avold power plant, in Moselle, when it was to be definitively stopped on March 31.

“There is a real risk that in the short term we will see a deterioration in the performance of the European Union in terms of reducing emissions, notes Carole Mathieu. Large-scale investments and measures will then be needed by 2025, which will allow reductions that are strong enough to compensate for the overrun of our climate objectives. »

In the eyes of Ajay Gambhir, a researcher in energy transition at Imperial College London, the risk comes less from coal than from investments made to increase European imports of liquefied natural gas. “The biggest risk is to lock the European Union into new lasting dependencies on gas, either by building new infrastructures that will have to be made profitable, or through new long-term contracts. » Germany has already announced the signing of a contract for the construction of the country’s first LNG import terminal, for more than one billion euros, the construction of which is scheduled for 2025.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has indicated that this terminal could be transformed to import green hydrogen (intended to replace gas and produced from renewable energies) in the future. But no one knows when this technology will be mature. “The solution advocated by Germany remains a technological bet”, notes Carole Mathieu.

Coal, fuel oil and LNG on the one hand are all more polluting than gas imported from Russia. On the other hand, explains MEP Pascal Canfin (Renew, Liberals)“there is now a European consensus to accelerate the deployment of renewable energies and decarbonize our energy infrastructures. The crisis has shown everyone that our dependence on fossil fuels represents a major risk. » In particular, new rules must be defined in the coming months to facilitate the expansion of solar and wind power.

The question of reducing consumption also burst into the speeches. The European Commission is promoting energy efficiency through the renovation of housing, and voices are being raised in several countries and within the International Energy Agency (IEA) to recommend the implementation of sobriety (reduction of speed on the roads, lower heating in certain buildings). Even if few measures have been taken by the States since the beginning of the crisis.

Other countries are accelerating their transition. Germany is now aiming for a 100% renewable mix by 2035, ten years ahead of schedule. The Netherlands also announced a plan to double the deployment of wind turbines by 2030, when France scrapped subsidies for gas heating in March.

The consequences of the crisis – and the questions on the energy transition – go beyond the simple European framework. In the United States, US President Joe Biden has announced that the country could increase its hydrocarbon production to compensate for Russian gas. But several analysts stressed that the answer could not be envisaged immediately, the country’s infrastructure being already used to full capacity.

What about coal, which remains the most CO2-emitting source?2 to produce electricity? “There is a real risk of momentum towards the use of coal in certain countries, since it remains more competitive than gasunderlines Dave Jones, world manager for the British think tank Ember, specialized in the exit of coal. But one of the scenarios could also be the direct transition of certain countries from coal to renewable energies, without intermediate passage through gas, as was the case until then. » Especially if the price of renewable energies turns out to be more competitive than that of fossil fuels.

Finally, it remains to be seen how the energy crisis will spill over into the other levers of the ecological transition. Maria Pastukhova, researcher in energy diplomacy at the British think tank E3G, points out: “One of the risks is that high fossil fuel prices affect states’ fiscal space for climate change mitigation and adaptation, especially in the Global South. »


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