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How the war in Ukraine could speed up Europe's climate plans

A 2014 photo of the offshore loading platform of Dominion Energy's Cove Point LNG Terminal, which exports liquefied natural gas.
Cliff Owen
/
AP
A 2014 photo of the offshore loading platform of Dominion Energy's Cove Point LNG Terminal, which exports liquefied natural gas.

The war in Ukraine has made getting more fossil fuels to Europe a top priority of the Biden Administration, in order to wean European Union members off Russian energy. But this comes as both Europe and the U.S. are behind on their goals to quickly reduce carbon emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for an immediate switch to renewable energy, and says the world will need to capture carbon from the atmosphere to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. That tension has prompted concern among climate activists, who warn that more fossil fuel exports will mean more climate warming emissions.

But some energy experts say this moment also presents an opportunity to change course, by making the point that clean energy is crucial for national security.

"I think it is more likely than not that we'll look back on this crisis as actually accelerating a clean energy transition," said Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Though, Bordoff notes, it could go either way.

Experts told NPR the climate cost of the war is still up in the air, and depends on how governments balance an immediate need for fossil fuels against long-term shifts in energy production.

What U.S. politicians can - and can't - do for Europe

In a joint announcement with the European Commission, President Joe Biden laid out a plan for helping Europe cut back its reliance on Russian energy, while also keeping a 1.5 degrees Celsius cap on rising temperatures "within reach." To do that, he promised to work with other countries to provide an additional 15 billion cubic meters of liquified natural gas to the European Union in 2022, and several times that amount by the end of the decade. If necessary, the U.S. will also support additional export or import infrastructure needed to get that LNG to allies, according to the announcement.

That announcement was greeted with enthusiasm in some circles, and skepticism in others.

"The U.S. State Department is not in charge of directing cargoes. The market is," said Tyson Slocum, Energy Program director with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.

"This may be politicians taking credit for what was already happening," said Clark Williams-Derry, Energy Finance Analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a group that supports the transition away from fossil fuels.

For starters, U.S. energy companies have already been increasing LNG exports to Europe this year, responding to increased demand and higher prices. Capacity that had throttled down due to decreased demand during the pandemic is coming back, said Williams-Derry. The additional amount promised is also not a lot in the context of how much energy the EU needs, less than 10% of the 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas the EU got from Russia in 2021.

It's "kind of a nothing burger," said Williams-Derry, of the extra LNG promised to Europe. "They're probably going to blow through that and that's just based on willing buyers and sellers."

New infrastructure to export natural gas could lock in climate-warming emissions

Still, how the U.S. tries to help could have major consequences. Speaking on Fox News, Republican senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana called this moment a reality check. "The Germans are depending upon us to provide them with more natural gas so they can become free of Russian energy. They need more coal, they need more oil," he said.

Cassidy promoted his plan for an Energy Operation Warp Speed, to supercharge domestic energy production of all kinds. He proposes that the U.S. not only permit more fossil fuel exports but also finance infrastructure for them.

That's because even as natural gas is flowing to Europe, there are bottlenecks.

Most Russian natural gas travels to Europe via pipelines, but importing gas from elsewhere requires special facilities. To ship natural gas, it must be purified, super-chilled until it becomes a liquid, and pumped into refrigerated tankers at what are called export terminals. Once at their destination, an import terminal is required to regasify the cargo.

Germany is looking into constructing both onshore terminals, which can take years to build, as well as using floating terminals, which can be set up more quickly, the Associated Press has reported.

The Biden Administration is looking at whether to lift its own ban on financing fossil fuel infrastructure abroad in response to this need, according to a report from Reuters. The joint energy plan also leaves space for enabling more LNG export infrastructure in the U.S.

This is a red flag to climate advocates, who say this kind of infrastructure would lock in more carbon emissions for years to come, and make the U.S. government an investor in a risky business.

"I personally do not think the U.S. government should pay for the terminals," said Amy Myers Jaffe, research professor and director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University.

Instead, she said the U.S. could help its allies by using a different kind of financing to incentivize oil and gas production at home. Crude oil exports to Europe are also on the rise, and could help Europe cover its energy needs without being responsible for locking in more LNG infrastructure.

Europe is speeding up its climate plans

Several energy experts expressed hope that the EU's plan to cut off Russian energy ultimately calls for rapidly reducing its fossil fuel use, which if successful would change the bloc's climate trajectory.

"With the will to do it, I believe Germany is a country that's going to be much further along their climate decarbonization path five, ten years from now than they would have been had this crisis not happened," said Myers Jaffe.

Germany's case is striking. In a matter of months it went from supporting a second gas pipeline from Russia, the Nord Stream 2, to scrapping it and vowing to fast-track its renewable energy plans. Multiply that across Europe, and "you're going to get a climate benefit," said Myers Jaffe.

The EU plan, called REPowerEU, calls for eliminating the need for Russian fossil fuels over time, replacing them with hydrogen, biomethane, as well as wind and solar energy. It also calls for efficiency measures, such as turning down thermostats by 1 degree Celsius (nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit). All told, the plan aims to lower total natural gas consumption across the EU by nearly one-third before the decade ends.

Bordoff, of Columbia University, said before that can happen there may be an energy crisis, and Europeans will still rely on fossil fuels to heat their homes and keep the lights on. "We have failed for many decades to make progress on our climate goals," he said, to support the renewable alternatives that would help right now.

"It's not because higher oil production causes us to miss our climate goals," Bordoff said. "It's because we're not on track for our climate goals, and therefore, the need for oil is going up."

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