View from Brussels: Green, mean fighting machines

The EU has talked the talk on green policies for a number of years but is now finally being forced to walk the walk by Russia’s upending of the geopolitical landscape. Fighting climate change is now firmly a “strategic imperative” in Brussels.

Back in 2019, the EU agreed to a legally binding climate-neutrality target that will require greenhouse gas emissions to fall almost completely by 2050. The rules and regulations needed to achieve that have been on the drawing board ever since.

When that ‘climate-neutrality’ target was first worked out, the main logic behind it was the EU’s obligations under the Paris Agreement, a 2015 international pact that commits almost every country in the world to do their fair bit to curb global warming.

Getting rid of fossil fuels then embracing clean energy and all the health and economic benefits promised by those policies has been the EU’s mantra, but there has been a lack of urgency in actually getting it done.

Then Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and changed the game.

Russian energy exports keep the lights on in millions of homes across Europe and the engines running under the bonnets of millions more vehicles, a fact not lost on top EU officials, who have nevertheless already targeted ditching those imports by 2027.

But it has prompted warnings from some governments that coal power stations will have to be switched back on, money earmarked for clean energy will have to be diverted to help people who cannot pay their bills and, in the case of the UK, fresh oil and gas exploration permits issued.

Energy and climate experts have debunked most of those policies as counterproductive and more expensive in the medium-term but still not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

But according to the EU's top diplomat, Putin’s invasion is no excuse to delay the green transition; rather it is an incentive to accelerate it as much as possible.

“Since the Kremlin has increasingly used energy as a tool for political influence, we must deprive it of its leverage by radically reducing our dependence on fossil fuel imports,” writes Josep Borrell in an opinion piece this week.

The Spanish official adds that the UN’s latest report on global warming has reiterated how drastic the situation is and that “the geopolitical rationale [for ditching Russian exports] overlaps with the imperative to tackle climate change.”

Borrell, who co-wrote the piece with the president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), insists that “every euro we spend on the energy transition at home is a euro we keep out of the hands of an authoritarian power that wages aggressive war.”

“Every euro we spend on clean energy enhances our freedom to make our own decisions,” the piece concludes.

While the crossover between climate and geopolitics is nothing new, the frank acceptance of it and a willingness to actually do something about it is. It is a mission that the EU is also willing to help countries around the world achieve.

The EIB is already investing billions in green projects around the world and is ready to do more. As the triple-A rated lender is essentially owned by the 27 EU member states, it will do their bidding with few or no questions asked.

Cutting off Russia’s lucrative energy trade is not the only item on the EU’s to-do list, as Borrell rightfully points out that “we must not trade one bottleneck for another by swapping our over-dependence on fossil fuels for over-dependency on raw materials.”

This has been a long-standing headache in Brussels, as officials hold back on writing policies that would turbocharge battery-powered vehicle sales or solar panel installations, over fear that demand would far outstrip supply. 

Ongoing Covid turmoil in China continues to worry Brussels, so for all of the nice words in favour of greener energy and cleaner transport, there is still a limit on what can be done in the current climate. 

Bulgaria and Poland had their gas supply unilaterally cut off this week and more disruption is almost certain to follow, so Borrell’s insistence that “decarbonisation has become a geopolitical imperative” is already ringing true. 

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