The Ukraine Crisis: A Vector or Barrier to Europe’s Green Energy Transition?
Written By: Charlotte Boschet
Edited By: Vanessa Lu Langley
Since 2020, most European countries have boosted their renewable plans, putting them on a course to cut fossil fuel use. However, soaring energy costs and supply shocks triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have prompted some countries to burn more coal and purchase non-Russian gas, raising fears that this will undermine efforts to fight climate change. Furthermore, the military invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has dramatically compromised the upkeep of Ukrainian nuclear plants, posing potential radioactive threats to local biodiversity and populations nearby. Thus, many have raised concerns regarding the environmental impact of the conflict and pushed the EU to find solutions to manage the energy crisis without compromising environmental efforts. Even though European governments are trying to lessen the effects of Russia’s weaponization of energy through sanctions, their position forces them to look more long-term by diversifying their energy sources. The latter drives many to wonder whether efficient management of the energy crisis will encourage the development of more decarbonized economies in Europe.
Since the start of the conflict, the Ukrainian nuclear plants have been identified as strategic targets by the Russian forces. Due to the robust infrastructures, Ukraine's four nuclear plants provide safe spaces to store military equipment and shelter for soldiers. However, most importantly, preventing Ukraine's access to these plants deprives the country of its primary source of electricity. By 2020, Ukraine had 15 functional nuclear reactors, which supplied more than half of the country's electricity according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Figure 1. Map of nuclear power plants in Ukraine
Since early March 2022, the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant has been under Russian control. Zaporizhzhya is Europe's largest nuclear power plant, counting six pressurized-water reactors. Although this type of reactor has a safer design than Chernobyl, Russian control of the plant has raised widespread concerns about the potential damage to the infrastructure that could create a radioactivity release into the environment. The armored reactor containment building is designed to survive a direct hit by an airliner, greatly diminishing the risks of a severe nuclear release. Even so, experts are more concerned about potential damage to the cooling systems for spent fuel and reactors. The uncontrolled buildup of heat could cause the fuel to melt, releasing and spreading radiation. Up to this day, the UN’s IAEA has had no success in obtaining access to the power plant to monitor the infrastructure.
Another location of concern is Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, captured on the first day of the Russian invasion. Since the Russian occupation, higher radiation levels have been measured. The latter is attributed to the trenches dug by the Russian forces in the area. The exacerbation of exposure to radiation could dangerously impact local biodiversity. Moreover, more than 65,000 acres of forest in the exclusion zone have been reported to have burned since the invasion. Due to the radioactive content of the wood in this area, a forest fire could send radioactive isotopes in the winds toward Kyiv, extending the threat of radiation to Ukrainian populations.
On the other hand, the poor upkeep of Ukrainian nuclear facilities is not the only environmental threat to Europe. Currently, Europe is going through an energy crisis while simultaneously tackling the climate crisis. As Russia disrupted the energy supply in response to European sanctions, European nations found themselves scrambling to find replacements for Russian oil and gas to meet adequate energy supplies. The latter means that several European countries had to turn to other fuel producers (e.g., the Middle East and the US) and domestic coal production. It is crucial to note that natural gas produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil. For example, coal emits twice the amount of CO2 per mmBtu (unit of energy content based on gross caloric value). Therefore, switching back to coal to replace Russian natural gas could have dire environmental effects even in the short-term. Furthermore, the EIA states that burning coal produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates which contribute to respiratory illnesses and lung disease along with acid rain, smog and haze. Thus, the increase in coal consumption could have significant impacts not only on local biodiversity, but also on the health of nearby populations.
Table 1. Emission factor per fuel type according to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol GHG calculation tool
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), European coal consumption is expected to rise by 7% in 2022, on top of last year’s 14% increase. The European countries that make up the most significant coal production are Germany (103 Mt) and Poland (98 Mt) (sustainanytics). Moreover, Austria and the Netherlands have also planned to extend their energy production to coal to offer short-term replacements for Russian gas. What does this mean for the EU’s transition to a lower-carbon economy? Will this crisis further Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels in tracking short-term alternatives to Russian gas, or will European nations take this opportunity to develop renewable energies? According to the IEA Executive Director, Fatih Birol, although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many countries to scramble for alternative energy sources to Russian natural gas, “solar and wind are filling much of the gap, with the uptick in coal appearing to be relatively small and temporary.” Therefore, global CO2 emissions are increasing less quickly than some had feared. Furthermore, government policy actions are driving fundamental structural changes in the energy economy, thanks to major clean energy policy plans implemented in recent months.
Although 70% of the gross available energy in Europe still comes from fossil fuels, several strategies to reform the EU’s energy market have been implemented recently. Firstly, some European nations have decided to leave the Energy Charter Treaty, which has been highly criticized for protecting big energy consumers. This treaty, signed in 1994, enables companies to claim compensation from a state whose decisions affect the profitability of their investments, even when it comes to pro-climate policies. The most emblematic case occurred in the Netherlands after adopting a law banning coal by 2030. In response to the latter, the German energy company RWE claimed 1.4 billion euros in compensation from the Hague for the losses caused to its thermal power plant. On October 21, 2022, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France was breaking away from the treaty to stay coherent with the Paris Climate Agreement. Macron stated, "at this time, we need to accelerate and focus our investments on going faster on renewable energy, going faster on energy efficiency, going faster on nuclear.”. France’s statement followed recent announcements by Spain, the Netherlands, and the Polish parliament voted to leave the treaty.
As argued by Fatih Birol, European energy security could be achieved through the accelerated use of renewable energy and existing oil and gas fields. New fossil fuel projects would only compete with climate policy. Therefore, the EU released the REPowerEU plan on May 18, 2022. The latter aims to reduce fossil fuel consumption and the EU's reliance on Russian gas through Europe's expanding renewables, energy efficiency, electrification, and gas alternatives (sustainable biomethane, renewable hydrogen). Moreover, it aims to increase the renewable energy target to 45 % of energy consumption by 2030 compared to 22% in 2020. This plan relies on three pillars of action: diversifying Europe's energy makeup, energy savings, and accelerating clean energy development. For short-term measures, the REPowerEU Plan aims to increase the production of biomethane and accelerate the development of solar and wind projects combined with renewable hydrogen to save around 50 bcm of gas imports, for example. For medium-term measures (to be completed before 2027), the EU plans to boost industrial decarbonization with 3 billion euros of frontloaded projects under the Innovation Fund. Furthermore, it seeks to develop new legislation and recommendations for faster permitting of renewables as well as investments in integrated and adapted gas and electricity infrastructure networks. Finally, several measures will be implemented to increase the ambition for energy savings by raising the EU-wide target on efficiency from 9% to 13% and by increasing the renewables target for 2030 from 40% to 45%.
To conclude, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine emphasized issues in the EU’s energy strategy and raised questions about the environmental impact of the conflict. The nuclear threats to biodiversity and populations due to the Russian control of strategic Ukrainian nuclear plants are still looming over the country. However, the intensification of the energy crisis due to Russia’s weaponization of natural gas seems to have given momentum toward developing green energy projects rather than intensifying Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels. Despite this encouraging news, climate experts underline the urgency of global action to reduce emissions. Will the plans like the REPowerEU plan be enough to curve the damages done in the meantime?
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