Opinion: Good riddance Nord Stream 2. Now Europe has a golden opportunity

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ suspension of the gas pipeline’s approval is one of the first sanctions that the West has imposed on President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s blatant breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Scholz made good on a threat the Germans were hesitant to invoke, given what they see as its far-reaching implications for the economy.

While the energy implications for the rest of Europe — some of which intended to rely on Russian gas to heat its homes for decades to come — are far-ranging, they aren’t tragic. On the contrary, this is a blessing in disguise.

Europe may rely on Russia for around 35% of its natural gas — Germany over 50% — but there are green alternatives that can step in and at the same time serve the purpose of addressing the ever more urgent climate crisis.
In fact, the pipeline was wildly controversial from the get-go, over a decade ago. Natural gas, after all, is a fossil fuel, the combustion of which emits high quantities of carbon dioxide. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, also leaks along almost all of the gas supply chain. In Germany, natural gas is responsible for 20% of carbon emissions — in other words, it’s not in the least bit climate friendly.
The pipeline, which would have constituted Europe’s largest fossil fuel project, flew in the face of the 2015 UN Paris accord by ignoring Europe’s commitment to lower greenhouse emissions and keep global temperatures from rising less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Also, it committed western Europe to Russia for an ever greater share of its energy supply — obviously an miscalculation given Putin’s geopolitical weaponization of energy since 2009 when it first cut gas deliveries to eastern Europe. Had the Europeans seen alternative energies as a cornerstone of geopolitical energy security 15 years ago, Russian gas would have much less muscle to flex in western Europe today. But that’s spilled milk now.

So now Europe has to jump to its feet and act decisively.

Fortunately, the continent is already in the thick of transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity-based renewable energy. There are plans in place, strengthened last year at the COP26 summit in Glasgow and driven by the EU Green Deal, as well as pledges galore, though most countries have been much too slow in acting upon them. These plans have to be put into fifth gear, understood now as the solution to two crises.

So what are the options? Of course, there are green alternatives to natural gas — such as biogas, wood pellets, power-to-gas, and other synthetic fuels. But the buildout potential of biogas, namely gases produced from raw materials such as waste and plant material, is limited. There’s only so much suitable waste and the cultivation of crop-based energy plants risks displacing food from families’ tables.

Power-to-gas is a technology that uses electrical power to produce gaseous fuel. For example, surplus power from wind generation can be converted into hydrogen. But this is still very expensive and not seen as a viable solution for heating all of Europe’s houses in winter.

Thus, Europe must rigorously accelerate its transition to electricity-based forms of heating, cooling, and transportation: called, logically, electrification. “Electrify everything” is considered a key step in transitioning away from fossil fuels, because when it comes to electricity, we know how to get to zero carbon. That’s not the case with gas. Electrification is also the most cost-effective way to decarbonize Europe’s economy.

Transportation, industry, and buildings can and will one day run on green electricity — nations have agreed upon this at climate summits. Gas was already, at best, a short-term “bridge technology” that was meant to hold Europe over between phasing out coal and oil (the dirtiest fossil fuels) and the full adoption of renewables. We can now ditch gas sooner than we had planned.

Of course, to power this electrified world, the massive expansion of renewable energy, storage technologies, hydrogen technologies, and smart grids is crucial, which now has to happen several times faster than it is now — a point that climate activists and experts have made for years.

Although hydroelectric, bioenergy, geothermal and even, in some countries, nuclear power, will play a role, the central technologies the world will rely upon are solar and wind power. Solar photovoltaic energy, namely turning sunlight into electricity, is the “cheapest energy source in history,” according to the International Energy Agency. Wind power, both onshore and offshore, are close on its heels, and in the midst of a massive worldwide roll out.
The EU intends to have renewables account for 40% of its energy supply by 2030, which means more than doubling wind power and solar energy production. Germany’s new government has pledged to quadruple solar power by installation of solar panels and more than double wind power production, largely by cutting red tape.

But studies show that even more clean energy is required to run factories and heat homes — and that’s even with gas flowing from Russia. Now those targets will have to be adjusted upward again.

Critically, energy efficiency targets, too, have to be ratcheted up. Europeans simply have to use less energy: drive less, heat less, consume less. The EU’s recently increased targets are actually quite tame: EU countries should collectively cut energy consumption by 9% by 2030, for example. Only 1% of Europe’s buildings are being renovated with high quality insulation every year — much too few. The introduction of a circular economy will shave energy use, too.

Europeans have to realize that they are living in precarious, crisis-fraught times. Ramped up green transformation policies are required now for two reasons: to break free of Putin’s energy stranglehold on Europe and meet global climate goals to keep our planet livable.

This story has been updated with more detail.

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