Every year seems like the most important, and, in terms of energy, it is, as record amounts of carbon continue to enter the atmosphere. According to preliminary estimates from the Global Carbon Project (GCP), this year will be no different, thanks to huge increases in China and India. This comes on the heels of respective increases of 2.1% and 1.5% in 2017 and 2018. Europe, however, is heading in the opposite direction, reducing the percentage of fossil fuels in its overall consumption from an astonishing 76% in 2017 to 64% in 2018, according to BP. The GCP forecasts a 1.7% decline in European emissions in 2019, suggesting that Europe’s use of fossil fuels will fall further.
The five most important European energy stories of 2019 all speak to Europe’s enduring leadership on addressing climate change, a leadership that is forging a common and reinvented European identify. Europe has also greatly enhanced its energy security in 2019, especially in gas, which enables this leadership and gives governments the confidence to bolster their commitments to carbon emissions reductions and investments in clean energy production and technology.
1. Russia-Ukraine gas-transit deal
The top story of the year – and maybe of the decade – was the agreement reached last Saturday that permits Russia to send gas through Ukraine to Europe for the next five years. The deal does not include direct imports to Kiev, a sticking point in negotiations throughout the year. Ukraine also received an increase in its transit fee and Russia agreed to pay $2.9 billion in arbitration claims.
It’s cathartic on multiple levels. Russian-Ukrainian relations have undermined Europe’s gas-supply security – and Russia gas-demand security – for nearly two decades. This truly win-win scenario exemplifies the best ways that energy can bring countries together, something it does more often than not. The shorter length of this deal also reflects the new, more liquid, global buyer’s market in gas and allows Europe and Russia flexibility to reassess their choices again soon. Europe’s gas puzzle remains incomplete, but its border pieces are fixed for the time being.
2. Leading with hydrogen
Renewable energies have surged in Europe this decade thanks to massively lower costs, growing demands for cleaner energy, and eagerness to reduce fossil fuel import bills. Yet renewables have failed to arrest the use of fossil fuels globally, which accounted for 80% of energy consumption in 2018.
Europe now sees hydrogen, the first element in the periodic table, as the place to lead on climate, and, in 2019, hatched the hydrogen spring alongside its Asian allies and the United States. This multi-decade task will face massive obstacles. Investment will be key. But, if unlocked, hydrogen has the potential to seriously expand the ability to consume and distribute renewable energies and replace coal altogether. This is Germany’s hope at least. It also can leverage existing oil and gas infrastructure and makes the use of fossil fuels clean.
3. Women, youth, and green politics
Historian Ian Morris, the author of Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, argues that each age gets the thought it needs to address its unique challenges. Women and young people are giving us ours.
The now well known Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has raised global awareness about climate change more than anyone in history. You know you’re doing something correct when Vladimir Putin is afraid of you. Elsewhere in Europe, Green parties were the biggest winners in the June European Parliament elections. The European Commission then launched its Green Deal this month under the leadership of President Ursula von der Leyen. Countless national governments have increased their commitments to emissions reductions between 50% and 100%. Such deals have emboldened female politics across the Atlantic as well. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez championed the Green New Deal, America’s most aggressive proposal yet to tackle climate. Democratic Presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed the Blue New Deal to halt the warming of the seas and harness ocean energy. Such plans might not be viable, but they push the thought towards where it needs to be.
4. Eastern Mediterranean rumblings
By and large, energy geopolitics calmed in 2019 (see Russia-Ukraine above), but it is back to the past in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greece and Turkey are at loggerheads over the region’s natural gas. These dynamics mirror those of 1974, when Greece began exploring for oil in the Aegean, prompting Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.
We can be thankful that oil is not at play today – natural gas is simply not worth war. It is a shame that all the region’s nations cannot collaborate in developing and harnessing these resources. The only commercially viable way for them to reach Europe in meaningful volumes is through Turkey. The East Mediterranean pipeline is simply uneconomic. The game, however, is no longer in the hands of regional actors, as the United States and Russia will make some type of deal to keep things from turning hotter, much as they did in northern Syria in October.
5. Noxiousness in the Arctic
Let’s be clear: Russia wants global warming. The more the Arctic melts, the more its economy and hydrocarbon production grow. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) accounts for 50% of its coastline, 10% of its GDP, and 20% of its exports. NSR shipping volumes rose by 40% in 2019, thanks to the swift development of the Yamal LNG project. China, meanwhile, may want to limit pollution at home, but cares little about the environment in the Arctic. It has taken major stakes in Russia’s development of hydrocarbons there. A melting Arctic makes it easier to ship its goods to northern Europe.
The pace at which these polar powers have developed hydrocarbons in the Arctic in 2019 is alarming. While Europe goes one way, they go another. The United States remains ambivalent, which is why European leadership is needed more than ever.
Photo: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and climate activist Greta Thunberg; Credit: wikimedia and flickr.