Putin fights the battle for greener energy

Has the Kremlin’s recent activity woken up the West to the need for green energy in the way climate change campaigns never have? 

Even by its own standards few Russian leaders have cut such a bellicose figure in the Western imagination as Vladimir Putin does. Recent Russian actions in the Crimea seemed to have cemented firmly the view that from Chechnya, to Georgia, to Crimea and beyond, modern Russia is as assertive, even as aggressive as the worst days of the USSR.

While some of the American and European responses, especially from men in uniform are firmly based in older ways of thinking there are signs of a different response. What may be different (and far reaching) from the point of view of Europe and America is to the new Russian weapon; its energy advantage.

Underground weapons

Laid bare, Russian energy influence on Europea is striking. For oil and gas, the EU’s dependency on Russia currently runs at 35% – with official projections rising much higher in the next two decades. This is a source of Russian power hidden deep below the Russian soil, which continues to be pumped into European homes and industries at an enormous rate, regardless of their governments stance on the Ukraine crisis.

The Baltic states have recent memories of Russian armies and have been swift to move into the NATO fold. However they still remain close to 100% dependent on Russia for natural gas. Poland was quick to install an American missile shield after the Putin-lead invasion of Georgia in 2008 – but six years later it still gets half of its vital gas supply from Russia. Europe’s industrial powerhouse Germany receives 36% of its gas from Russia. Few need to look far for obvious signs of Russian-energy influence at the very heart of Europe: the energy giant Gazprom is a leading sponsor of the UEFA Champions League.

Last week, Ukraine’s new temporary Prime Minister said that the EU needed to prevent Russia from using energy as “a new nuclear weapon”. We don’t need to imagine what the withholding of supplies of gas could look like, we can easily remember it; in the fierce Winter of 2009 Putin’s government cut the gas to Ukraine, resulting in massive shortages throughout central and eastern Europe. The crisis only served to expose European dependency and despite EU regulations to improve safety of supply and levels of storage few have been reassured. Moscow’s posturing has coincided with an increase in the use of gas partly as a means to meet emission-reduction targets when few reliable alternatives are available.

In the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s eastern-European allies were provided with subsidised oil prices to keep politically in line. In the late 1980s Moscow began to charge its client states at market prices, causing their economies to suffer badly, and further weakening the local communist elites’ hold on power. Three decades later a massive discount on gas prices was what now-deposed President Yanukovych accepted as part of his deal with Moscow which precipitated the recent crisis

Putin, the eco-warrior!

At the EU summit in Brussels last week signs emerged that Europe’s leaders now seem to have woken up to the need to wean themselves off imported Russian fossil fuels. This week it emerged that the “South-stream” pipeline, designed to link Russian pipelines more firmly with the EU by 2018 has now been shelved. What will be needed in a time of rising energy demand are alternatives, and fast.

Announcing a “speeding up” of interconnection between member states EU Council President Van Rompuy announced that the EU had sent “A clear signal that Europe is stepping up a gear to reduce energy dependency, especially with Russia: by reducing our energy demand, with more energy efficiency; by diversifying our supply routes to and within Europe, and expanding energy sources, in particular renewables“. It seems Russian military manoeuvres have woken European leaders up to the need for action in a way environmental lobbyists never have.

Despite having set itself an ambitious set of goals to combat climate change, the last few years have not been shining examples for green EU policies. The much vaunted EU Emissions Trading System has been allowed to flounder as carbon prices have fallen through the floor. Meanwhile the target of a 20% reduction in energy efficiency by 2020 looks certain to fall short. As the European Commission looks to its 2030 targets there could seldom be a better time to demonstrate more ambition in renewables, energy efficiency and kick starting ETS as well as projects such as Carbon Capture and Storage.

Previously the eastern European states usually the most sceptical of Moscow are among the ones who have resisted ambitious EU climate change targets; that may now change.

Shale to the rescue?

Shale gas is for some the next great hope, but a number of factors, ranging from a lack of infrastructure, stronger environmental regulation and simple demographics may halt attempts to make much use of European shale.

Whether or not cheap US energy will become more available upon conclusion of the EU-US Free Trade deal remains less than clear. Current US restrictions on exporting oil and gas would need to be overcome, and that might not be easy. It will certainly be a test of Washington’s commitments either to its allies or undermining Putin.

Charge of the ‘Lights-on brigade’?

It’s only a generation since the movement of a Soviet armoured division on manoeuvres in the Arctic or the placing of long-range missiles in satellite states caused panic in Western capitals. Today the pipelines that criss-cross the continent cause greater concern than hard military capability. If the Western response to this latest battle for Crimea is to finally take firmer action in how it produces and uses its energy and resources then we can say that a shift in policy has occurred, and if a cleaner climate is the prize, we may have Putin in part to thank.

2 responses to “Putin fights the battle for greener energy”

  1. Tom Elliot Roberts says:

    “Current US restrictions on exporting oil and gas would need to be overcome, and that might not be easy.”

    This. America needs to start exporting its fossil fuels to its allies. The Centre for Policy Studies also suggested pressuring the Saudis to increase oil production to damage Russia, noting Saudi Arabia’s far larger foreign reserves and opposition to Russian support for Assad in Syria.

    So greener energy may not be a victor of the Crimea crisis after all…

    • Paul Hagan says:

      Indeed Tom, there certainly are moves afoot to use more traditional means and they may well be part of any concerted Western action. What is interesting is that John Boenher the Republican Speaker of Congress recently said there was a need to relax controls on exporting fossil fuels to Europe & Ukraine- but like anything with the Congress and foreign trade; it’s easier said than done. Having seen the EU-US Free Trade negotiations up-close here in Brussels this will certainly not be a rapid-response option, as predictions for finishing the deal by 2014 now look optimistic- whereas any credible solution would need to take effect before Winter hits Eastern Europe. Your comments regarding the Saudis are interesting, partly as they echo the politics of 70s oil-shock era, with all its interesting parallels of today. I certainly think that the EU is waking -up to the fact that the most sustainable course of action is to increase efficiency, improve connectivity and increase share of renewables. Time will tell, and while as you suggest the US (which continues to do very well from fossil fuels and maintain significant leverage in the Middle-East, unlike the EU) may not alter energy policy significantly, there is evidence that the EU is slowly realising something needs to change in its consumption patterns.