Angeli Mehta reports on how measures that could significantly reduce energy demand are being overlooked in the rush to invest in more fossil fuels 

Russia’s war against Ukraine is forcing Europe to rethink energy security in a bid to become independent of Russian fossil fuel supplies. But just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is warning in its latest report that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees would be beyond reach without “immediate and deep emission reductions across all sectors”, Western governments are making decisions that risk the opposite.

Just days after the IPCC report, the United Kingdom published an energy strategy that included plans to secure more domestic oil and gas production.

While any new licenses are supposed to be subject to a “climate compatibility” checkpoint, the criteria have yet to be published.  

Meeting the UK offshore wind targets will require ‘delivery at a scale and pace as yet unseen’

The UK’s Climate Change Committee, which advises on emissions targets, has said carbon budgets could still be met with the development of new oil fields if efforts are made to minimise production emissions (of methane and CO2), but has questioned “whether developing new UK fields would help or hinder efforts to reduce emissions globally”.

At the same time, Boris Johnson’s government wants up to 50 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030, compared with just over 10 GW operating now, to help deliver a 95% decarbonised grid by 2030. It also wants to develop eight new nuclear reactors, so nuclear provides 25% of electricity demand by 2050. 

Mike Thompson, director of analysis at the Climate Change Committee, said meeting the offshore wind targets would require “delivery at a scale and pace as yet unseen”.

The UK government wants up to 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030.(Credit: Phil Noble/Reuters)

But as households struggle with soaring energy costs, there is little focus on driving down energy demand through efficiency measures such as insulation. And although the UK government wants to see 600,000 heat pumps installed each year by 2028, it hasn’t provided a roadmap to support the sector and address the lack of skilled engineers needed to install them. 

Observers and environmental groups have lambasted the government’s failure to address this low-hanging fruit.  Nick Eyre, director of the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), argues that over the last 30 years, improvements in energy efficiency have contributed more to energy security than nuclear and renewables combined. Experts at CREDS estimate the UK could halve energy demand by 2050, while still improving the quality of life.   

This is supported by climate think-tank E3G, which suggests that energy efficiency, low-carbon heat and renewables investment could eliminate all Russian gas within a year, and by 2025 replace four times as much gas as is currently imported. 

The major challenge is not so much the availability of heat pumps, or problems in manufacturing, but the availability of skilled workers

Energy security is an even bigger issue in Germany, which gets almost 55% of its gas imports from Russia, compared with just 4% for the UK.

Germany’s new economy minister (and former green party co-leader) Robert Habeck has been in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, looking for alternatives. Some will come in the form of liquified natural gas, including from the U.S., prompting plans to build LNG terminals. Germany is also looking to extend the life of some of its coal power plants, which had been slated for closure.

Yet a group of European climate think-tanks argues that Europe could achieve energy independence from Russia without recourse to fossil fuels by fast-tracking plans to build out renewables and ramping up energy efficiency and heat pump use. 

Robert Habeck, left, met Qata's energy minister Saad Sharida al-Kaabi in March. (Credit: Qatar News Agency via Reuters)

Maria Pastukhova, senior policy adviser at climate change think-tank E3G, says residential heat “has the largest potential for Germany to get away from dependence on gas altogether ‒ not just Russian gas”. 

Ambitious targets for decarbonising heating through heat pumps are now expected to be sped up but, as in the UK, skills are a big barrier, Pastukhova said. “The major challenge here is not so much the availability of heat pumps, or problems in manufacturing, but the availability of skilled workers” to carry out installations. 

There are discussions at European Union level, and through a new Energy Security Taskforce launched jointly with the U.S., which intends to address both energy supply and demand. The U.S. is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of heat pumps and has the skills to match. 

“It is crucial that they really address the demand side, and skill-sharing will be central for what both countries can do,”  Pastukhova said, adding that “international cooperation is really key to both solving the energy security and the climate crisis challenges.” 

International cooperation is really key to both solving the energy security and the climate crisis challenges

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also exacerbated shortages of raw materials needed for the energy transition, including nickel and cobalt, which will be needed to scale up the production of technologies such as wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries. 

In the United States, President Joe Biden announced he intends to make use of the Defence Production Act to secure U.S. supply chains. “We need to end our long-term reliance on China and other countries for inputs that will power the future,” he said.  “And I’ll use every tool I have to make that happen.” 

But other facets of the U.S. president’s response to the Russian invasion, including the commitment to provide more LNG to Europe, sanctioning of new oil and gas production on federal lands, and the release of strategic oil reserves, are raising doubts about his commitment to the energy transition.

The big question is whether the new measures will only maximise existing capacity or lead to new investments in oil and gas infrastructure. 

Main picture credit: Oleg Popov/Reuters


This article is part of the May 2022 issue of the Sustainable Business Review. See also:

ESG Watch: ‘Writing on the wall’ for U.S. firms with SEC’s tough new climate reporting rules

Society Watch: When it comes to cars, few are heeding the IPCC’s plea to curb consumption

Brand Watch: Guterres strikes U.N. panel to ensure businesses ‘walk the talk’ on climate pledges

Why a more inclusive culture in the drinks industry makes business sense

Ukraine  Russian gas  IPCC  Climate Change Committee  UK offshore wind  CREDS  energy efficiency  heat pumps  LNG  climate change 

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