As the invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, climate concerns have been temporarily usurped by energy security concerns. Russia is the world’s third largest oil producer and second largest gas producer. The European Union is Russia’s largest market, receiving seventy percent of the countries gas exports and half of its oil exports. As Europe’s largest energy supplier, Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to interrupt Europe’s supply of coal, oil and natural gas. The EU’s overall dependence on Russian natural gas however has always been a contradictory vulnerability for a political bloc which also sees itself as a leader in the global transition to clean energy.
As gas prices increase however, critical policy debates around the word are shifting from how governments can prioritize renewable energy sources to how governments can achieve energy independence and security. Unfortunately, in this precarious moment many countries are seeking greater energy independence and security through the increased exploration of traditional fossil fuels. In a moment of immediate crisis, quick and dirty energy supplies are being exploited and risk deprioritizing renewable and sustainable energy sources in the medium and long term. While the unfolding crisis in Ukraine has temporarily displaced climate change on the global agenda, it has also emboldened climate skeptics who argue that clean energy has diminished the ability of domestic fossil fuel reserves to contribute towards energy independence. Additionally, the price of carbon permits have crashed in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, lowering the cost of emitting carbon for the EU’s most polluting companies and potentially incentivizing a rise in quarterly greenhouse gas emissions in France and across the EU as discussed in last month’s post.
France and ‘Strategic Autonomy”
While Germany imports around half of its gas from Russia, France only obtains a quarter of its supply and has been decreasing its dependence on Russian oil over time. France’s largest source of natural gas is Norway, from which it receives 35% of its overall supply. Before the crisis in Ukraine, French President Macron had been pushing to make the EU more autonomous and less reliant on other countries for their security, especially energy security. The repercussions of the Ukraine crisis with its soaring energy prices have powerfully underscored Macron’s message. Central to Macron’s call for ‘strategic autonomy’ is phasing out France and the rest of the EU’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels by 2030.
France’s Nuclear Energy Ambitions
France’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been to lean into its nuclear capabilities and continue championing a more energy-independent EU. For example, Macron announced in early February that France will scale up its nuclear energy capabilities by building 14 new generation reactors to reduce its reliance on energy imports. France is aiming to position itself as Europe’s largest atomic power producer and lead a coalition of countries backing nuclear energy as a means of achieving net-zero emissions and energy independence. Environmental groups however point out that while nuclear power does not produce its own carbon emissions it does generate long term radioactive waste which undermines the fight against climate change. Indeed, Macron has successfully lobbied to have nuclear energy classified by Brussels as a green investment. As the French presidential election arrives in April, most candidates back nuclear power as a means of meeting France’s climate goals with the exception of France’s Greens party. Short falls in France’s nuclear energy output over this past winter however have compelled the country to fall back on its remaining coal fired power stations as well as natural gas imports. Unfortunately, France’s wind and solar power capacity is not yet sufficient to compensate its nuclear short falls. President Macron however has committed to France’s future in wind and solar by doubling France’s capacity of onshore wind power and seeking a tenfold increase in solar power capacity by 2030.
Net-Zero to Counter Russian Aggression
There is both hope and cause to believe that net-zero is a compelling antidote to current and future Russian aggression. Russian aggression is provoking higher, more volatile gas prices, appears to be accelerating public and political momentum towards the EU’s energy transition. If renewables rather than gas are the future of energy, then a rapid energy transition serves France’s climate agenda as well as its security agenda.
On March 10-11 EU leaders informally convened in France at Versailles and adopted a Versailles declaration which seeks to reduce its energy dependencies on Russia in light of the conflict. The declaration agrees to phase out EU dependency on Russian gas, oil, and coal imports by, among other things, reducing overall reliance on fossil fuels faster, further developing an EU hydrogen market, accelerating the development of renewables, and improving energy efficiency and promoting circularity. The European Commission also proposed an outline of a REPowerEU plan to make the EU independent from Russian fossil fuels. Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans said of the plan, “Let’s dash into renewable energy at lightning speed. Renewables are a cheap, clean, and potentially endless source of energy and instead of funding the fossil fuel industry elsewhere, they create jobs here. Putin’s war in Ukraine demonstrates the urgency of accelerating our clean energy transition.”
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard France Country Manager Liana Mehring