Rhein on Energy and Climate

Energy security has re-appeared on the agenda of European energy policy. More than half of European energy needs are covered through imports, with most of them coming from a few countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria.

Under the impact of the Ukraine crisis, the EU has launched efforts to diversify its gas imports to other supply countries like Norway, Algeria, Qatar and USA and strengthening intra-EU connections. But this should be only one chapter of a more comprehensive policy effort.

Europe would be well advised to reduce its overall import dependency. It is likely to become a balance of payments burden, as global energy resources will become scarcer and more expensive. This trend has been accelerating during the past few decades. No commodity has seen a steeper price rise than oil, which today is about 40 times more expensive than 50 years ago, something we tend to overlook in view of the short-term market fluctuations.

The long-term recipe for energy security is simple: reduce the consumption of energy, in particular of fossil fuels. That corresponds to Europe’s basic strategy the rationale of which deserves an overhaul. Instead of trying to minimise climate change, which remains the biggest global challenge, we should focus more on European interests: guarantee our long-term energy supply, which should make it easier for citizens to accept a higher price.

More domestic fossil energy production like shale gas would be helpful for lowering import dependency. It should also help replacing lignite and coal that need to be phased because of their high CO2 content.

But if Europa wants to be serious with cutting its energy imports to, say, a quarter of its needs until the middle of the century it has no choice but to sharply reduce its energy demand and, in parallel, boost wind, solar and ocean energies and make them less dependent on weather vagaries thanks to a comprehensive EU-wide grid.

By doing so it will greatly enhance its energy security while making a valid input against climate change. Both of these objectives are worth an increase of energy prices, which is likely to happen anyhow. Politicians should therefore stop complaining of “high energy prices” and put them in the wider context of a reliable energy supply and the preservation of the planet.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 5/5/2014

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