COP26: How Climate Change and Geopolitics Continue to Shape Europe’s Energy Agenda

As European governments begin to ease restrictions in a widespread effort to leave the COVID-19 pandemic behind as quickly as possible – even as cases continue to rise in certain countries,- a new threat has emerged. With the global economy regaining steam after nearly two years of battling the worst public health crisis in over a century, it appears that energy supply is not keeping up with the public’s demand. This new dilemma has resulted in record-breaking energy prices all over Europe, threatening the stability of an already battered continent that has seen hundreds of thousands of its citizens perish to the virus. This situation is particularly worrisome for two reasons. First, Europe doesn’t seem to be moving at the right pace as it tries to steer away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy. And to make matters wore, some of Europe’s biggest economies continue to rely heavily on Russia to meet their energy needs. With that in mind, Europe will have to make important adjustments to its energy strategy if it is to secure a stable, long-term energy policy capable of coexisting with the demands put forth by the Paris Agreement road map.

And perhaps, COP26 can be a start. This week world leaders, negotiators, non governmental organizations and many others are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland to evaluate the progress made under the Paris Agreement of 2016 and tackle climate change. It should be pointed out that the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century is currently far from our reach and important questions remain as to how that goal will be achieved. While the efforts of countries like China or India to reduce the effects of climate change have been deemed highly insufficient, the European Union is also failing to keep up with the expectations set by the agreement. In countries like Spain, a former leader in wind and solar power, the transition to renewable energies became a less pressing priority in the years following the Great Recession due to their high costs. This, combined with unreliable environmental factors like weaker winds in the North Sea, has added to the sluggishness that has come to characterize Europe’s energy ambitions. 

In the midst of this challenge, some ask whether nuclear energy should play a role in all of this. In France, for example, 70 percent of its electricity already comes from green nuclear power. However, at this point in time, a widespread effort to promote nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels seems unlikely given the many safety concerns linked to this particular source of energy. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 or the Fukushima disaster in 2011 have led many to question whether nuclear energy is even worth pursuing.

Europe’s energy policy is also partly conditioned by the continent’s reliance on Russia for its energy needs. In fact, Russia has become the EU’s main supplier of crude oil, natural gas and solid fossil fuels, a situation that is unlikely to change in the short-term given the fact that the European economy’s dependence on foreign energy imports remains quite high. This particular state of affairs raises numerous concerns and hinders the EU’s ability to confront Russia on a variety of issues, including the violation of basic human rights or the forced annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia has been the recipient of numerous sanctions and the target of countless diplomatic efforts to counteract the policies of President Putin, including the exclusion of Russia from the OECD, but it is yet to be seen what could cause Russia to halt its energy exports into Europe altogether. Certainly this is a scenario that the EU cannot afford to even begin to contemplate as a Russian embargo could make the price of electricity skyrocket beyond the current record-breaking prices.

Europe doesn’t seem to have much of a choice if it hopes to keep its word in the fight against climate change. The goals set by the Paris Agreement remain beyond reach but the effects of global warming are felt each and every day in some corner of the world. For that reason, it could be argued that Europe’s best bet is to speed up its energy transition, increasing investment in clean energy and promoting a regulatory environment that stimulates its growth. At the same time, Europe’s increased dependence on renewable energy would make it less susceptible to the unpredictability of Russia’s energy policies, which could revitalize the EU’s role as a diplomatic heavyweight on the international stage.

Thus, it appears that a more ambitious approach to Europe’s clean energy efforts could pay off on so many levels. Now the question is, will the EU harness the political will necessary to truly embolden its energy agenda?

A Pathway to Peace

For nearly a year Hong Kong has been facing a growing number of seemingly insurmountable challenges. A U.S.- China trade war, an ongoing stream of anti-government protests, and a global pandemic have all pushed Hong Kong’s economy and political stability closer and closer to the cliff’s edge. Like many of you, I have grown rather pessimistic and can no longer state with absolute certainty that this will all pass, that our lives will soon get to catch even a glimpse of normality. However, I refuse to believe that there is no path forward, that Hong Kong will inevitably meet a disastrous end. There is a way out for Hong Kong; it all comes down to how willing people are to put their differences aside and compromise. In my view, Hong Kong will find the peace it desperately needs as long as the following conditions are met:

Anti-government movement

  1. They must cease all forms of violence at once. This approach is not only utterly anti-democratic, but it also polarizes a society whose divisions cannot be stretched any further.
  2. They must peacefully raise their concerns about Beijing’s policies, but never take their anger out on law-abiding Mainland citizens. Targeting mainlanders simply because of their origin will only perpetuate the conflict. We all become better citizens (and better people) when we embrace diversity.
  3. They must uphold true democratic values. In a democracy, factions cannot hope to impose their will at all costs. Virtually by definition, democracies strive to integrate different viewpoints. Protesters need to accept that there are people out there who don’t share their ideology.
  4. They must look into the future and never into the past. Reminiscing about Hong Kong’s colonial past is not only foolish but it also undermines the movement’s supposed democratic character; there is nothing democratic about being a colony. Hongkongers will prevail as long as they fight for what this city can be, not for what it once was.

Governments of Hong Kong and China

  1. They must actively listen to the people’s demands. Most observers will agree that the conflict’s origins largely emanate from a widespread lack of trust, and this lack of trust is nothing but the result of the city’s and China’s failure to engage in a constructive dialogue with the opposition. The government is not required to give in to every single demand, but it has the moral obligation to address the opposition’s anxieties for the sake of Hong Kong’s stability.
  2. Regarding the nation’s symbols and identity, they must educate, not impose. Under the “one country, two systems” framework, it is legitimate for the governments of Hong Kong and China to pursue any piece of legislation aimed at consolidating China’s national identity. However, punishing those who believe that the flag and anthem don’t represent them is an act of futility that will only drive people further away from China.
  3. They must offer solutions. Carrie Lam’s biggest failure has been her inability to propose a path forward for Hong Kong. After nearly a year of political instability and economic recession, the Chief Executive’s plan for the city remains unclear.
  4. They must be bold. As of today, the most unlikely solution to the conflict is also the most effective and politically powerful: China should commit to “one country, two systems” beyond the 2047 deadline or maybe even indefinitely. Unlike what many skeptics believe, this framework has brought much progress to both China and Hong Kong. The perceived inadequateness of the system is merely the result of its mistaken association with the opposition’s grievances. Although not completely unfounded, their fears have largely emerged as a result of not knowing what China has planned for Hong Kong beyond 2047. A written, legally-binding commitment on the part of Beijing to keeping the current system in place permanently would undoubtedly send a strong, positive message to the people of Hong Kong.

Western governments, media, and other foreign interests

  1. They must show respect for China’s political process. As a sovereign nation, China has the right to rule over its territory however it pleases. Foreign interference would only be appropriate if there was clear, tangible evidence that China’s policies towards Hong Kong were detrimental to human rights.
  2. They must steer away from misinformation. Western media outlets have spent nearly a year telling the world one side of the story. By ignoring street violence and the doxing many have suffered for speaking out against the anti-government movement, Western media outlets have whitewashed the movement’s most radical elements and deliberately constructed an image of Hong Kong that does not fully correspond to the city’s reality.
  3. They must stop viewing Hong Kong as simply a tool to gain political leverage. Today, the dreams and aspirations of millions of Hongkongers are being threatened as foreign actors consider targeting the city’s economic engines in order to pressure the central government. In doing so, however, they seem to ignore the sheer size of the Chinese economy and the fact that the only victims of a foreign crackdown on the city’s economy will be the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has proven to be quite resilient, but the city cannot be embroiled in a permanent state of crisis. The people of Hong Kong must band together for peace.