Europe is in danger of facing very damaging “very, very strong conflicts and struggles” over high energy prices this winter, and should return to fossil fuels in the near future to face the threat of civil unrest, the vice president of the European Union said. Commission has warned.
Frans Timmermans, the second most senior official in the EU, said the threat of unrest this winter, a deliberate consequence of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, should take precedence over the climate crisis.
He said: “If our society descends into very, very strong conflict and strife because there is no energy, we will certainly not [climate] goals. We will certainly not get where we need to be if the lack of energy leads to major disruption in our societies, and we must ensure that people are not left out in the cold in the coming winter.
“We need to keep our industry functioning as much as possible because the only thing that could help Putin is division in our society.”
People who have a cold this winter because they can’t afford heating would also be disastrous for solving the climate crisis, Timmermans argued in an interview with The Guardian in Brussels.
“I’ve been in politics long enough, over 30 years, to understand that people are most concerned about the immediate crisis and not the long-term crisis. with the protracted crisis,” he said.
Timmermans said his aim was to reassure the EU’s public by November 1 that they would not face a crisis in heating their homes this winter.
“I sincerely believe that if we can’t give that guarantee, society will be on edge, as it is everywhere because of high energy prices, inflation and rapidly rising food prices – because of this uncertainty caused by the war,” he said. “Putin is using all the resources he has to create strife in our societies, so we have to brace ourselves for a very difficult period.”
Coal should be used, he said. “If we just said no more coal now, we wouldn’t be very convincing in some of our member states and we would be contributing to further exacerbating tensions in our society.”
Energy prices have soared around the world as a result of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but Europe has been hit particularly hard. Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Germany — the EU’s largest economy — relied on Russia for most of its gas. Overall, Europe depends on Russia for about 40% of its gas.
The German government has begun to ramp up electricity production from coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest form of energy, while the nuclear phase-out can continue as planned.
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz also urged the G7 to reverse its stance on banning foreign investment in gas projects to aid exploration of new fossil fuel fields in developing countries.
The European Parliament also voted this week to classify some gas and nuclear power projects as “clean” energy for investment purposes, much to the chagrin of climate activists who worry that the climate agenda has been lost for fear of energy prices.
Timmermans, who is responsible for the EU’s green deal and leads the bloc in international climate negotiations, emphasized that a short-term return to fossil fuels was compatible with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre- industrial level, the target confirmed at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow last November.
He also gave qualified support for expanding fossil fuel exploration in parts of Africa, which civil society leaders have already warned would lock up Africa in a high-emissions future with no benefit to ordinary people.
“In this global situation, with the massive shortage of fossil fuels, how can you say to someone who has fossil fuels, ‘You can’t exploit that,'” he asked. “How can we not take up the immediate challenge of having to find alternatives to Russian gas and say to others, ‘You shouldn’t be exploiting gas.’ That would be hypocritical. I can’t say that.”
But Timmermans tempered expectations for Cop27, the next global climate summit to be held in November in Sharm el-Sheikh. During Cop26, countries failed to draft national plans to cut emissions in line with the 1.5C limit they had confirmed, so they agreed to return to the negotiating table this year with tougher plans, the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
However, these were unlikely to materialize as promised, given the energy and food crises and the war in Ukraine, Timmermans said. “Honestly, I don’t see that many new NDCs on the horizon,” he said, pointing to Australia, with its new government, as a rare exception.
“I don’t have the highest expectations from Sharm el-Sheikh here because the Bonn conference that just ended has clearly shown that there is not much enthusiasm for raising NDCs, and there is a lot of frustration in developing countries about the money that was promised and is not quite on the table yet.”
Timmermans blamed Putin for this failure. “Everything revolves around the energy transition and energy is central to this.
“If one of the largest energy producers in the world causes this disruption, as Russia is doing now, the rest of the world will of course be tense in terms of what is happening in the energy markets, and that will of course affect the way we make further commitments to our reduce emissions given the situation?”