Europe’s Energy Security and Climate Change: An Opportunity or a Threat? – Part II

Climate change as a catalyst to solve Europe’s energy security problems

This is the second of two blogs written for the University of Westminster discussing Europe’s energy security in times of climate change threats. The first part explains the challenges which occur for the energy sector by the changing climate and compares climate change to other historical challenges of energy security. Part II of the series argues that climate change, in fact, helps Europe to overcome path-dependent stasis and that the changes now implemented, in the long-term, will guarantee better security than the current system.

Read part one of the series.

Climate change as a catalyst to solve Europe’s energy security problems

This chapter argues that climate change, from an energy security perspective, is a huge opportunity for the EU as it forces the Union to commit a quick transition and to finally break out of the fossil fuels path dependency. Before outlining all the energy security benefits of a low carbon society with a high share of renewables, it is important to understand the threat that climate change currently poses on the energy market. With melting glaciers, longer dry periods and less snow, rivers in Europe transport less water in spring (EU Science Hub, 2018). This is perilous for the agriculture sector and residents relying on those resources, but also for energy suppliers. Power plants require a huge amount of cooling water and some countries already experienced times when power plants had to suspend operations due to a lack of cooling water (Klare, 2015). Water scarcity also threatens hydroelectric power plants, which would theoretically produce clean energy. Klare (2015), in what he calls a climate change blowback, also mentions the damage caused on American oil and gas infrastructure during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, destroying 115 offshore oil platforms and 535 pipeline segments. Similar incidents are expected to happen in Europe, threatening the entire supply chain. The EU energy strategy to address the contemporary issues comprises five dimensions: 1) Energy security, solidarity and trust, 2) A fully integrated internal energy market, 3) Energy efficiency contributing to moderation of demand, 4) Decarbonising the economy, and 5) Research, innovation and competitiveness (European Commission, 2019b). Ensuring energy security is thus a top priority and as will be explained, for energy-importing states emission minimization and a shift away from fossil fuels fit indeed very well into the energy security agenda (Anceschi and Symons, 2012).

We will first have a look at the obvious environmental benefits. Through the electrification of the transport sector, the implementation of renewable energy sources and new policy frameworks – including CO2 taxes, carbon trading schemes etc. – GHG emissions will hopefully stabilize or even decrease before 2050. This will, in theory, slow down global warming and limit it to the 1.5°-2°C target set in the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2019). A low carbon economy, hence, complies with the energy security component of being environmentally friendly. Goldthau (2013) also points out that environmental friendliness includes much more than just tackling climate change: Apart from climate change, fossil fuels and nuclear power plants have directly caused many more environmental problems such as Chernobyl (1987), the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico (2010), the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident following a tsunami (2011), or a gas leak at the Elgin platform in the North Sea (2012), to name but a few.

Many scholars pointed out that the main barrier for a climate-neutral Europe from a traditional energy security perspective is price-related (Mayer and Schoten in Anceschi and Symons, 2012). Today, fossil fuels may still be slightly cheaper than renewable energy, but it is only a matter of time until that changes and many renewable sources are already highly competitive (Ellsmoor, 2019). Nuclear power, on the other hand, is from an investors’ perspective delicate as the development costs are enormous – The UK currently builds a new nuclear power plant which is estimated to cost £22 billion (Ambrose, 2019). And the political situation is also not resilient. Germany, for instance, forced all energy suppliers to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 – breaking international treaties and binding contracts with the suppliers, which led to long-winding and expensive lawsuits (Bernasconi-Osterwalder and Hoffman, 2012). And talking about the price; the oil price is anything but stable. During the last two decades, it fluctuated between $10 in 1999, $147 in 2008, $35 in 2009 (Anceschi and Symons, 2012) and stands currently at around $60 per barrel. Furthermore, there are also economic side effects to take into consideration. Stern calculated that the externality costs of each ton of CO2 emission lie around $85 (Stern, 2007). The development of shell gas and tar sand may have increased the volume of available fossil fuels, and “clean coal plants” may greenwash coal’s image, but all of this comes with higher extraction and manufacturing costs. A second major energy security component, affordability, will thus also be greatly improved by the energy revolution.

From a political perspective, the reduction of fossil fuels and the increase of clean and local energy offer many benefits. First and foremost, it reduces the dependency on oil-, gas- and coal-exporting countries and offers new job opportunities in the home-grown renewable industry. Or in the words of a realist, the growing home market of renewable energy sources will create thousands of jobs while the layoffs of fossil fuel employees are mostly going to happen abroad. European money will thus be invested within the EU and is consequently strengthening the European single market (European Union, 2019). Decreasing Europe’s energy dependency – a key aspect of energy security – will minimize the risk of being outplayed by political tensions on European borders, as seen during the Ukraine-Russia conflicts in January 2009. Back then, Russia cut off gas pipelines to Ukraine, which, in the middle of the winter, became a threat for many EU countries who were relying on Russian gas (Smith Stegen, 2011).

Stronger storms, periods of drought, rising sea levels and other natural disasters enforced by climate change compels people to leave their homes. This inevitably leads us in a social and even legal direction. The UN Commission on Human Rights has recognized that climate change is the most serious threat to human rights (OHCHR, 2019). Various soft laws and guidelines, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), should ensure that states and companies respect human rights and thus actively protect its citizens from climate change caused threats. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) from 2015 even go a step further and explicitly mention the importance of guaranteeing energy security worldwide (United Nations, 2019). While it is difficult to turn soft law into hard law, a recent development gives hope to environmentalists and may scare European governments. Strategic climate change litigation, which understands the strategic suing of countries if the state demonstrably fails to do enough to meet set climate targets, has mushroomed in recent years (see for instance Setzer and Byrnes, 2019). The Netherlands, for example, were successfully sued in 2019 (Khan, 2017) after the plaintiffs were able to credibly demonstrate that the government’s current efforts are not in compliance with the findings of the latest IPCC report. This brings for many European state leaders another aspect into play: Tackling climate change has become a bottom-up approach, with the “bottom” expecting proactive action from their governments. The European elections in 2019 and the “green tsunami” that swept across Switzerland (Rahim, 2019) are clear witnesses to this.

Summary and conclusion

The history of the 20th century has shown that energy security has always had a place in the agenda of European countries but with different prioritization over time. The neo-colonial order which emerged after World War II was very much in favour of Europe’s agenda. The first insecurity crisis arose in the 1970s when, amongst other development, OPEC was founded. A sudden shift of power towards the exporting countries became a threat for importing countries. Europe was able to solve this through various countermeasures such as a better diversification of their energy portfolio and new oil and gas trading partners (mainly Norway). However, anyone who thought that the newly emerged neoliberal order was the solution to all energy security problems was wrong. State capitalism replaced liberal capitalism in the 21st century and Europe faced a second energy security crisis. This time even more serious, though, as in addition to fossil fuel insecurity, the whole climate is at stake.

Although Europe’s answer to climate change is causing some critique, it is, as shown in this work, above all a huge opportunity for solving many energy security-related issues. This essay highlighted that the energy transition, which is at the core of Europe’s agenda to combat climate change, offers numerous advantages. And – hand on heart – without the imminent threats that climate change bears, the energy transition would not have proceeded so quickly. Therefore, it is fair to argue that climate change has been an important catalyst for Europe’s energy strategy. I am concluding by highlighting various policy tools that ensure energy security, as proposed by the International Energy Charter (2015): 1) Diversification, 2) supply expansion, 3) security enhancement, 4) stockpiling, 5) demand control, and 6) trading. Diversification can be achieved with promoting a variety of renewable sources combined with gas plants to compensate variable renewable energy fluctuations. Supply expansion and security enhancement are also promoted by renewable energy, which requires significantly fewer resources from abroad and uses freely available domestic energy such as sun, wind and water. Investments in Europe’s interconnectors will additionally improve supply and security. Future stockpiling policies will be more concerned with electricity storage than with oil and gas stockpiling, which explains why many European countries are heavily supporting R&D in this field (see for instance The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2014). Demand control will be guaranteed through demand-side responses (Houses of Parliament, 2014; Torriti, 2015; Taibi et al., 2018). What is more, from a European citizens perspective, the energy transition offers cheaper electricity rates and decreases health cost. The rapid execution of the energy system transformation has thus nothing to do with altruistic motives. On the contrary, it combats climate change, solves most of the current energy security threats, and is based on economic considerations. Europe’s energy strategy shows, very simply, a well-reflected understanding of a modern energy security agenda.

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