After Putin invaded Ukraine, ‘the climate’ turned out not to be the biggest crisis after all

The end of coal was announced at the climate summit in Glasgow last year. Yet coal-fired power stations are now being reopened. Nuclear power plants in Belgium were closed. Now they remain open. RutteVier wanted to make the Netherlands the climate frontrunner in the world. In the meantime, the government has something else on its mind.

It’s the tragedy of the climate lobby: whenever ‘climate’ is successfully pushed to the top of the political agenda, a more pressing crisis comes along. In 2006, thanks to Al Gore, the climate was the number one theme, especially in the western world, but in 2007 the financial crisis started, followed in Europe by the euro crisis.

In 2017 there was finally economic room for climate ambitions, but already in 2020 attention was drawn away by Corona. With a view to the end of the pandemic, Frans Timmermans worked diligently in Brussels on a European climate agenda. Then Putin invaded Ukraine and the world had changed again.

The Ukraine war directly affects climate policy. After all, energy is central to climate policy, and that also applies to the relationship between Russia and Western Europe, including the Netherlands. The Dutch government wanted to get rid of oil, gas and coal. For that reason, citizens were deliberately treated high energy prices, to force them to expensive home insulation, ditto heat pumps and fewer car kilometers. But when Putin pushed up prices, everything changed.

The Netherlands was the only country in the world that wanted to get rid of gas – and at a rapid pace. The whole of Europe now wants to get rid of Russian gas, but not immediately and not from gas in general. New facilities for gas supply are being organised, in particular by ship. The shutdown of gas production in Groningen is suddenly no longer so certain. Everything changes when Putin’s mighty arm causes it.

Then: the climate for everything

Just before the elections to the House of Representatives, D66 leader Sigrid Kaag claimed that tackling climate change could not wait a day: according to her, it was ‘make or die’. Jesse Klaver of GroenLinks called it a ‘lie’ that nuclear energy could contribute to a cleaner future. New power stations could not be put into operation before 2030, and by then it would be too late, according to Klaver.

Politicians abroad were no less alarmist. Germany’s new three-party government said it was time for a ‘climate revolution’. The country had to get rid of coal by 2030 and become a ‘world leader’ in the field of green hydrogen. Joe Biden told the Glasgow climate summit that the world had only a “short window of time” to avoid a “catastrophe”. He promised the Americans a four-year climate plan of no less than $2 trillion. By comparison, the entire US economy was worth $21 trillion last year.

Jacques Hagoort and Arnout Jaspers have previously explained that the world will not end in 2030. The war in Ukraine has made people realize that we are not getting rid of fossil fuels so quickly. And that the ‘climate transition’ without nuclear energy will be quite a difficult task.

Biden has been able to invest billions in electric cars, energy-saving measures – such as better insulation of social rental housing – public transport, modernization of the electricity grid and the remediation of old coal mines. However, larger investments in sustainability and greening are meeting resistance in Congress, where even some members of Biden’s own Democratic Party struggle with costs.

While last year there was talk of higher gas taxes to encourage electric driving, the states of Connecticut and Maryland, where the Democrats are in power, and Georgia, which is in the hands of the Republicans, have abolished their taxes this year. The left-wing governor of even more left-wing California, Gavin Newsom, wants to give car owners a one-time subsidy of $400 to offset the high fuel prices. The Green New Deal has been put in the refrigerator.

Fracking

Thanks to shale gas and oil, America is no longer dependent on fossil fuels from the Middle East. The technique, in which a mix of chemicals, water and sand is pumped under high pressure into shale rock, creating cracks and allowing the gas or oil to escape, is controversial in Europe.

One fear is that the chemicals involved in this fracking used would contaminate groundwater. It’s not impossible, but it’s hardly happened. Water sits much higher in the ground than oil and gas. Fracking could also cause earthquakes, but yes, we know that regular gas extraction does the same in the Netherlands.

Biden has called on the US oil and gas sector to produce more. Those, in turn, are asking the president to issue more permits to drill for oil and gas on federal land and in territorial waters. Immediately after taking office, Biden announced a licensing freeze. He also refused to approve the construction of an oil pipeline between Canada and the ports of Texas. Companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil are therefore not eager to take on new projects. Before you know it, Biden changes his mind again.

Shale gas in Europe?

There is no drilling for shale gas or oil in Europe at all. A number of countries, including France, have even banned it. Gazprom lobbied the European Commission for years to ban shale gas across the European Union. The Russian gas monopolist – rightly – saw it as a danger, as Wouter Roorda describes elsewhere in this Wynia’s Week. Such a ban has not come about, but whether shale gas in Europe will get a second chance is open to question. However, Europe is abandoning its moral objections to shale gas from America.

The EU aims to cut its dependence on Russian gas by two-thirds this year. Within five years, the bloc should stop importing oil and gas from Russia at all. That is little time to phase out oil and gas completely. So the fuels have to come from somewhere else.

Biden is ready to sell another 15 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. In the medium term, even 50 billion cubic meters must be added. The countries of the European Union imported 155 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia last year.

US LNG exports have increased significantly in recent years. In 2021, the Americans sold us 22 billion cubic meters of gas, an additional 4.4 billion in January this year alone. This required nearly 300 ships. The American gas mainly goes to France and Spain, both of which have built LNG terminals on the Atlantic Ocean. The Netherlands is in third place in imports.

The EU has 26 LNG terminals, half of which are located in the Mediterranean Sea. For Northwest Europe, the terminals in Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Dunkirk are the most important.

Germany still has zero capacity to import liquefied natural gas. Gasunie and Vopak, who manage the LNG terminal in Rotterdam, tried to build a similar terminal in Hamburg for five years, but encountered resistance from the local bureaucracy and the environmental movement. Only now is Germany realizing the usefulness of LNG and wants to build two terminals as soon as possible.

Back to nuclear energy…

There are also voices in Germany to allow the three remaining nuclear reactors to run for a while longer. Ten years ago, Germany still had 17 reactors, but almost all of them were closed by Angela Merkel. Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen as a result, as the country has been forced to burn more coal and gas to generate electricity. However, it also wants to get rid of coal and (Russian) gas. That would be difficult without nuclear energy. The current schedule is still to close the last three reactors this year.

Belgium is already over. The nuclear power plants of Doel and Tihange are expected to close in 2025, but will remain in use until 2035. The two power stations, together with seven reactors, supply about 30 percent of Belgium’s electricity.

Environmental rules in a different light

Emmanuel Macron promised voters five years ago that he would gradually phase out nuclear energy. He is now pushing for new power stations. France still needs gas for heating, but hardly needs to import gas to generate electricity. The country emits almost 60 percent less greenhouse gases than Germany. This is due to nuclear energy.

It is not only energy policy that has been cast in a different light by the war in Ukraine. Environmental regulations for agriculture are also under discussion. Fearing food shortages, the European Commission is postponing the goal to halve the use of pesticides by 2030. Farmers also need to leave less land fallow than was agreed last year.

D66 wanted to get rid of half the livestock in the Netherlands and was right in the coalition agreement of RutteVier to the extent that 25 billion euros are allocated to buy out a third of the cattle farmers. Although this is to promote biodiversity (and therefore not the climate), Putin strikes here too.

When food security was not a concern, we could give priority to nature and climate. However, the high raw material prices and war in Ukraine have made it clear that affordable food cannot be taken for granted.

Putin exposes hypocrisy

The Ukraine war thus leads to paradoxical effects and exposes hypocrisy in climate policy. Poland opposed the phasing out of coal in a European context, but is now leading the way in banning the European import of Russian coal. The Netherlands first made gas expensive for consumers and now cheaper again. Under Putin’s pressure, everything becomes liquid.

Another pressing paradox: the European Union and most NATO countries want to get rid of the import of fossil fuels from Russia, especially because this is how Putin pays for his war. Only: not just yet, because the dependence on Putin’s energy is too great for that. Putin, in turn, would like to punish the EU by, for example, turning off the gas taps, but he needs the revenue too much. Both sides of the pump threaten a boycott, but the consequences are too severe for both sides.

Boycotting Russia Isn’t Ending ‘Fossil’

The smiling third are the countries that do not boycott the Russians, such as China and India. As far as logistically possible, they are happy to buy the fossil surpluses from Russia at a bargain.

Putin will not scale back oil and gas production. If America starts producing more, Iran may start exporting again, once it has a new nuclear deal with the United States, and Europe stops buying from Russia, world prices could fall, which is not in line with the ‘energy transition’ as usually intended. ‘Green’ electricity from wind turbines and solar panels will then become less competitive, for example.

Whether Putin’s energy crisis will bring the fossil-free world closer remains to be seen.

(In collaboration with Syp Wynia)

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