By undercutting one of the primary transition assets to a renewable future, Europe is gambling heavily on natural gas. In doing so, they are choosing a battlefield in which Putin is well advantaged.
Natural gas is clearly the centerpiece to the European energy strategy of the future but with local gas production falling and seeming unlikely to recover, imports have become increasingly relevant. The current crisis in Ukraine has shone a light on Europe’s dependence on Russian imports, and the very real constraints it places on foreign policymaking. So long as Putin is keeping the heat on across the continent, he has both a tool and a threat to advance his geopolitical interests.
The European Union has stated publicly that it seeks to achieve zero net emissions by 2050, an ambitious goal which will require the elimination of carbon heavy energy production. Outside the EU, British PM Boris Johnson stated the UK could be 100% renewable by 2035. Most countries in Europe have set similar energy goals for the mid-century mark. Attempting to meet these admirable carbon neutrality benchmarks requires sustainable short-term solutions to rising energy consumption.
Despite the commitment to lowering emissions, with few exceptions, the largest being France, the stronghold of Europe’s atomic energy industry, the age of nuclear power in Europe seems to be waning. Germany intends to have its last nuclear reactors shut down by the end of this calendar year as part of its transition to a carbon neutral energy grid. Countries such as Austria and Italy have already completed the phasing out of nuclear energy in the past while Switzerland, Spain and Belgium are in the process currently. As many European states shutter nuclear facilities before the end of their lifetimes and decline to build new ones, it becomes clear that natural gas will be used to fulfill Europe’s energy needs.
The success of European political independence, however, will increasingly rely on a diversification of energy sourcing away from Russia. But with a brazen commitment to phasing out nuclear energy how feasible is this in the short to medium term? With the amount of natural gas in Europe coming from Russia, reorientation of supply chains and logistics networks will prove difficult at best. Russia holds a quarter of the world’s proven gas reserves and is responsible for the provision of 40% of Europe’s natural gas. Even when considering the potential use of liquified natural gas (LNG) which can be shipped without major pipelines, Europe’s problems defy easy answer. Larger alternative markets would still find it difficult to substitute Russia’s existing infrastructure, market share, and sheer volume of production.
Major sellers such as Azerbaijan and Qatar may be able to mitigate the dependency on Russia but will not be the liberators Europe needs. Qatar is already producing at near full capacity and has made clear it will not be able to ship significant amounts of additional LNG to European markets. The Qatari Ministry of Energy and Industry announced that it is not willing to significantly disrupt its supply internationally to serve European interests alone. Azerbaijan presents Europe with a potentially more reliable market to turn to for natural gas but offers further complications. While eager to become a supplier to Europe through the Black Sea, questions remain as to how effectively Baku can slot in for Russia. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, registered deliveries in the amount of 177 billion cubic meters (bcm) to Europe in 2021. By comparison, Azerbaijan produced only 44 bcm total in the same year, exporting less than half of that. Even with increasing export capabilities, Azerbaijan and Qatar will be hard pressed to become Europe’s new suppliers in the quantities it requires.
The inability of Europe to find new major suppliers of natural gas, coupled with significant emissions benchmarks limiting the expansion of non-gas fossil fuel industries gives Putin a path for continued leverage over Europe. Nuclear power is a very viable outlet for Europe to find its footing in this energy crisis. While initial capital costs may be high, nuclear energy is environmentally sustainable and produces large quantities of cheap power. France’s success in this field is a testament to the fact. Additionally, the fuel costs tend to be more predictable than natural gas. As long as major European states are unwilling to consider nuclear energy as a practical renewable option, they will be dependent on natural gas. Such a dependency will for the foreseeable future offer Moscow an avenue of continued relevance and political-economic control over Europe. Utilizing nuclear power to help ease the transition to a renewable future would enable Europe to keep its energy industry less dominated by rival powers and complex international supply chains. Europe will not be able to attain energy independence through natural gas so long as Russia controls the spigot.