By Robert Bradley Jr. — March 4, 2022
“Certainly, the path of energy transition has never been clear. Five climate summits have taken place over the past 30 years, and progress has always fallen short. This latest setback may just be the latest in a long series of halfway measures and setbacks.”
“For critics of the European Union’s climate policies, the sudden focus away from greenhouse gas emissions and on existing fuel reserves is validating.” (NYT, below)
Let history note that the February 23, 2022, print edition of the New York Times admitted that “net zero” was a long shot. This breaks the narrative that Net Zero was the inevitable future with politics and business and high technology leading the way. Forget energy density; energy reality would be remade by a shared narrative of hoping and wanting it to be remade.
The beginning of the end of Net Zero Mirage has launched. COP 27 in nine months will confront a tripartite fossil-fuel boom, as well as elections that will demote climate zealotry in the United States and around the world.
Mainstream, politically correct, cancel-culture leaders such as the New York Times ignored the warnings about how wind and solar were fickle energies trying to replace the real thing, the carbon-based mineral energies we take for granted. But the naysayers were just spouting off agenda-driven Big Oil drivel, right? Wrong. What happened in Texas (a wounded grid from wind/solar penetration) just over a year ago has been playing out in slow motion in the UK/EU.
It was only three months ago that world leaders met at the Glasgow climate summit and made ambitious pledges to reduce fossil fuel use. The perils of a warming planet are no less calamitous now, but the debate about the critically important transition to renewable energy has taken a back seat to energy security as Russia — Europe’s largest energy supplier — threatens to start a major confrontation with the West over Ukraine while oil prices are climbing toward $100 a barrel.
For more than a decade, policy discussions in Europe and beyond about cutting back on gas, oil and coal emphasized safety and the environment, at the expense of financial and economic considerations, said Lucia van Geuns, a strategic energy adviser at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies. Now, it’s the reverse.
“Gas prices became very high, and all of a sudden security of supply and price became the main subject of public debate,” she said.
The renewed emphasis on energy independence and national security may encourage policymakers to backslide on efforts to decrease the use of fossil fuels that pump deadly greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Fossil Fuels to the Rescue
Already, skyrocketing prices have spurred additional production and consumption of fuels that contribute to global warming. Coal imports to the European Union in January rose more than 56 percent from the previous year.
In Britain, the Coal Authority gave a mine in Wales permission last month to increase output by 40 million tons over the next two decades. In Australia, there are plans to open or expand more coking coal mines.
And China, which has traditionally made energy security a priority, has further stepped up its coal production and approved three new billion-dollar coal mines this week.How Europeans are responding to high energy bills.
“Get your rig count up,” Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. energy secretary, said in December, urging American oil producers to raise their output. Shale companies in Oklahoma, Colorado and other states are looking to resurrect drilling that had ceased because there is suddenly money to be made. And this month, Exxon Mobil announced plans to increase spending on new oil wells and other projects.
Higher Prices, More Drilling
Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford, warned that high energy prices could lead to more exploration of traditional fossil fuels. “Governments will want to deprioritize renewables and sustainables, which would be exactly the wrong response,” he said.
Europe’s transition to sustainable energy has always been an intricate calculus, requiring it to back away from the dirtiest fossil fuel like coal, while still working with gas and oil producers to power homes, cars and factories until better alternatives are available.
For Germany, dependency on Russian gas has been an integral part of its environmental blueprint for many years. Plans for the first direct pipeline between the two countries, Nord Stream 1, started in 1997. A leader in the push to reduce carbon emissions, Berlin has moved to shutter coal mines and nuclear power plants, after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The idea was that Russian gas would supply the needed fuel during the yearslong transition to cleaner energy sources. Two-thirds of the gas Germany burned last year came from Russia.
Future plans called for even more gas to be delivered through Nord Stream 2, a new 746-mile pipeline under the Baltic Sea that directly links Russia to northeastern Germany.
On Tuesday, after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia recognized two breakaway republics in Ukraine and mobilized forces, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany halted final regulatory review of the $11 billion pipeline, which was completed last year.
“I don’t think the threat from Russia is outweighing the threat of climate change, and I don’t see coal mines opening up across Europe,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a research organization in London.
Certainly, the path of energy transition has never been clear. Five climate summits have taken place over the past 30 years, and progress has always fallen short. This latest setback may just be the latest in a long series of halfway measures and setbacks.
Still, without a more comprehensive strategy to wean itself off gas, Europe won’t be able to accomplish its goal of reducing emissions 55 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, or to reach the Glasgow summit’s target of cutting net greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.
As Mr. Nixey acknowledged, “this debate is changing” as leaders are forced to acknowledge the downsides of dependency on Russian energy.
A rising concern. Russia’s attack on Ukraine could cause dizzying spikes in prices for energy and food and could spook investors. The economic damage from supply disruptions and economic sanctions would be severe in some countries and industries and unnoticed in others.
The cost of energy. Oil prices already are the highest since 2014, and they have risen as the conflict has escalated. Russia is the third-largest producer of oil, providing roughly one of every 10 barrels the global economy consumes.
Gas supplies. Europe gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and it is likely to be walloped with higher heating bills. Natural gas reserves are running low, and European leaders have accused Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of reducing supplies to gain a political edge.
Food prices. Russia is the world’s largest supplier of wheat and, together with Ukraine, accounts for nearly a quarter of total global exports. In countries like Egypt and Turkey, that flow of grain makes up more than 70 percent of wheat imports.
Shortages of essential metals. The price of palladium, used in automotive exhaust systems and mobile phones, has been soaring amid fears that Russia, the world’s largest exporter of the metal, could be cut off from global markets. The price of nickel, another key Russian export, has also been rising.
Financial turmoil. Global banks are bracing for the effects of sanctions designed to restrict Russia’s access to foreign capital and limit its ability to process payments in dollars, euros and other currencies crucial for trade. Banks are also on alert for retaliatory cyberattacks by Russia.
A Changed Debate
Even in Germany, where the progressive Greens have gained a more influential voice in the government, there has been a shift in tone.
This month, Robert Habeck, Germany’s new minister for the economy and climate change and a member of the Greens, said events had underscored the need to diversify supplies. “We need to act here and secure ourselves better,” he said. “If we don’t, we will become a pawn in the game.”
Energy prices started to climb before Mr. Putin began massing troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, as countries emerged from pandemic closures and demand shot up.
But as Mr. Putin moved aggressively against Ukraine and energy prices soared further, the political and strategic vulnerabilities presented by Russia’s control of so much of Europe’s supply took center stage.
“Europe is quite dependent on Russian gas and oil, and this is unsustainable,” said Sarah E. Mendelson, the head of Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College in Washington. She added that the United States and its European allies had not focused enough on energy independence in recent years.
Overall, Europe gets more than a third of its natural gas and 25 percent of its oil from Russia. Deliveries have slowed significantly in recent months, while reserves in Europe have fallen to just 31 percent of capacity.
For critics of the European Union’s climate policies, the sudden focus away from greenhouse gas emissions and on existing fuel reserves is validating.
Arkadiusz Siekaniec, vice president of the Trade Union of Miners in Poland, has long argued that the European Union’s push to end coal production on the continent was folly. But now he hopes that others may come around to his point of view.
The climate policy “is a suicidal mission” that could leave the entire region overly dependent on Russian fuel, Mr. Siekaniec said last week as American troops landed in his country. “It threatens the economy as well as the citizens of Europe and Poland.”
For Mateusz Garus, a blacksmith at Jankowice, a coal mine in Upper Silesia, the heart of coal country, politics and not climate change are driving policy. “We will destroy the power sector,” he said, “and we will be dependent on others like Russia.”
Atlas is Shrugging. Wind and solar are parasitic to electricity from carbon-based energies. The New York Times energy writers are catching on just a bit, but how much longer will they stick to the script that wind and solar are the basis of a sustainable energy future for the masses?