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?