‘Net zero crisis!’ Climate policy loophole empowers Putin as Europe reliant on Russian gas

Germany's reliance on Russian gas addressed by Eva Maydell

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Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine 10 weeks ago has forced Europe to confront uncomfortable questions about Moscow’s grip on its energy supplies. The EU has slapped Russia with a raft of sanctions over the war, but its members are still heavily reliant on Russian gas and remain divided on how to deal with the issue. Since the conflict began, the bloc has imported around £37billion worth of Russian fossil fuels, with Germany and Italy the largest importers, according to the Centre of Research on Energy and Clean Air.

The UK – which is no longer part of the EU – also relies on Russian energy, although less than five percent of its gas comes from Russia, compared with around 40 percent of the EU’s.

Part of the predicament for the UK and the EU is that both have legally binding commitments to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide by 2050.

Effectively, this means balancing the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

The UK and EU nations reaffirmed their pledges to achieve the target at the COP26 global climate summit hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November.

However, the way net zero is measured remains hugely controversial because of claims that countries can use “creative accounting” to reach the target.

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Under the international guidance set out by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK’s target only includes carbon emissions emitted directly within its borders.

This means that the Government’s advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, does not count the UK’s carbon imports from countries such as Russia in its calculation of the UK’s progress towards net zero.

Almost half of the UK’s carbon footprint comes from emissions released overseas, according to a WWF report in 2020.

Most of the UK’s supply of natural gas comes from the North Sea and Norway rather than Russia.

Imports of Russian oil are slightly more, accounting for eight percent of total UK oil demand.

Meanwhile, Russia is the EU’s largest oil supplier, providing around 26 percent of the bloc’s total imports in 2020.

Germany, which, like the UK, has set ambitious environmental targets, imports 49 percent of its gas from Russia, and many countries in eastern Europe import almost entirely all their gas from Putin’s regime.

The loophole in how each country’s output is calculated means importing from Russia helps them lower the emissions set against their own name.

Both the UK and EU have said they will phase out Russian oil imports by the end of the year and that supplies will not be affected.

However, the moves raise questions about what will replace Russian gas imports to the UK and especially Europe.

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Germany has already shelved the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, which is owned by a subsidiary of the country’s state-owned Gazprom and was not yet operational.

In March, the price of oil also shot up to $140 (£112) per barrel for the first time since 2008.

Other countries may be lined up as oil exporters to Europe such as the US, Norway, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Japan and South Korea.

Part of the reliance on Russian gas, some argue, is down to the UK and EU prioritising net zero.

Some experts claim that by pursuing renewable forms of energy like solar and wind, gas reserves have been neglected, along with energy security.

This situation gives Putin an upper hand in controlling Europe’s energy supplies.

Last month, Sir Dieter Helm, energy economist at Oxford University, gave his assessment of the situation.

He wrote: “The trouble is that the populations [of the West] have all been fed a political, lobbyist and media narrative that decarbonisation is low-cost … they are discovering that this is not true.

“What the renewables drive neglected was the need to have a coincidental and supportive strategy for dealing with intermittency.”

He added: “Simply neglecting the gas security position, and in particular its price dimension, leaves the UK with … its first net-zero energy crisis.”

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