Europe Needs to Radicalize Its Climate Policies in Response to the Energy Crisis

The EU is watering down its tepid plans for ecological reform as energy prices soar. The Left has to escalate the struggle for social and environmental justice in Europe and oppose attempts to shift the burden of climate chaos onto the Global South.

European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans (L) and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (R) unveil the "European Green Deal" during a press conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels on July 14, 2021. (John Thys / AFP via Getty Images)

This year, Europe experienced one of the hottest summers in its history. There were approximately 250 large fires in Spain at the end of June, while Alpine glaciers in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and France suffered the greatest loss of mass since records began six decades ago. The European Union’s Green Deal seeks to reduce the continent’s emissions of ozone-depleting substances, which comprise about one-third of the global annual total.

However, the steep rise in energy prices and the wider cost-of-living crisis are playing into the hands of the energy sector and the political right, who want to block any meaningful action, however limited, and even take steps in the wrong direction. For example, the right-wing coalition that has come to power in Italy wants to initiate the country’s first-ever nuclear program, while the new Swedish government, propped up by the far-right Sweden Democrats, has scrapped the environment ministry, bringing it under the ministry for energy, business, and industry.

The global energy crisis with its unjust and unequal effects are proving difficult for the Left and the environmental movement to cope with, posing difficult questions about the use of fossil fuels to stave off immediate energy poverty. An ecological left must fight right-wing climate denialism and neoliberal greenwashing at the same time. While urgent solutions for the problems of the European poor are necessary, the Left must campaign for public control of the energy system and oppose so-called environmental fixes that shift the burden of the energy crisis yet again onto the peoples of the Global South.

The EU’s plan already fell a long way short of the ambitious plans for social and ecological transformation associated with the Green New Deal in Europe and the United States. Now there is a danger that it will be whittled down even further.

Man on the Moon

The European Commission launched its plan for a European Green Deal with much fanfare in December 2019. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen dubbed it “Europe’s Man on the Moon Moment.” The European Climate Law and Fit for 55 plan that have put this blueprint into practice set a binding target for achieving climate neutrality by 2050, with emissions to be reduced by at least 55 percent by 2030.

Environmentalists and the United Left group in the European Parliament have criticized the plan as being inadequate to keep the world on track for the Paris Agreement goal of holding global warming below 1.5 degrees. This is especially true since the goal of “net-zero” includes emissions trading and forest conservation, rather than actual zero emissions. These groups demand a much more drastic reduction of at least 65 percent by 2030.

Still, the plan offers a space for social movements to mobilize. The climate movement, through actions like the Fridays for Future Protests, has put calls for urgent change and the promotion of renewable energy on the agenda. However, environmental activists have been largely barred from official negotiations such as the recent COP27, while corporate lobbies have expanded their influence at international and European levels.

The energy lobby, comprised of firms such as the US oil company ExxonMobil, has major influence over the European Commission, which is reflected in the top-down “green growth” character of the Green Deal. In March 2022, a coalition of civil society organizations, academics, and think tanks from all twenty-seven EU member states launched a Manifesto for a Green, Just, and Democratic European Economy, calling for fundamental changes to be made to the EU’s Economic Governance Framework.

The Green Deal’s Industrial Strategy praises the European single market — the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people — as a framework that makes European companies internationally competitive while allowing consumers to obtain cheaper goods. Yet the single market has also promoted uneven development, tax competition, social dumping, and the lowering of labor standards. In particular, competition has undermined public services such as water, transport, and energy that will be central to the socio-ecological transition we need.

Too Little, Too Late

The Green Deal effectively limits the role of the state in climate action to creating a suitable environment for private investment. The main area where public spending is currently being increased is defense, even though Europe’s military sectors have an annual carbon footprint equivalent to the emissions of at least fourteen million cars. The sums allocated to the Just Transition Fund (JTF), designed to assist the regions and sectors most affected by decarbonization, and the Social Climate Fund, intended to compensate for the harmful distributional effects of the new EU Emissions Trading Scheme, are insufficient to cover the necessary public climate investments.

For example, according to the European Commission, 120 million Europeans — more than a quarter of the EU’s total population of 450 million — will have to retrain or upgrade their skills. It estimates that this will require the creation of more than one million jobs by 2030. But the Commission appears oblivious of the disruptive changes this will entail in people’s lives, including the necessity of moving to other regions.

The transport sector is responsible for roughly one-quarter of EU-wide emissions, which will have to decrease by 90 percent by 2050 if the EU is going to achieve climate neutrality. The European Commission proposals concentrate on promoting electric personal cars when it should be focusing on green public transport and mobility. This would reduce emissions while creating large numbers of jobs in transport, maintenance, and infrastructure.

The Fit for 55 plan does at least bring in stricter CO2 fleet limits for passenger cars and light utility vehicles and phases out the production of combustion motors by 2035. This appears to be an important move in view of the power of the German auto industry, with its focus on mid-range and luxury-class vehicles, SUVs, and sports cars.

However, a 2035 deadline is still too little too late. Moreover, the car industry has been pushing for deals like the EU–Mercosur free trade agreement that will displace the pollution of auto production to countries with lower standards and help it to find markets and explore mineral resources for batteries in the Global South. A real transition will require large-scale public investment in the upgrading and expansion of rail networks within and between European countries, including measures to address the sense of abandonment in rural and deindustrialized areas.

Unfit for 55?

75 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use and production. In July, the liberal, conservative, and social-democratic parliamentary groups in the European Parliament pushed through the Fit for 55 plan without proper discussion in the relevant committee. It increased the EU’s existing target of supplying at least 32 percent of its needs through renewable sources by 2030 to 40 percent.

This shift to renewable energy is urgently needed: indeed, they should account for 50 percent by 2030, not 40 percent. There should be a new energy model based on state planning and public-sector bodies that strengthens the participation of citizens. There are plenty of local examples of energy democracy that we can draw upon.

However, the global energy war precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the crisis of the liberalized energy sector and shows why it should be in public hands to serve the needs of society. The war has prompted EU member states to focus on natural gas, partnerships with authoritarian regimes, and regressive trade agreements like the EU–Mercosur deal.

The European Commission has suggested that the energy shortage due to supply cuts from Russia can serve as an accelerator for the continent’s decarbonization. In reality, EU leaders are finding it easier to resort to false solutions and “bridge” energy sources. The great risk is that Europe will delay the socio-ecological transition while simultaneously imposing energy restrictions on its citizens.

European natural gas prices are currently around ten times higher than they were on average over the last decade. France, which relies on nuclear energy for about 67 percent of its electricity, turned its reactors back on in October (thirty-two of fifty-six had been under maintenance). It has also strengthened relations with Algeria, whose oil and gas reserves have acquired a new strategic significance, and is considering two-hour energy cuts.

The so-called EU taxonomy is a key classification system that specifies which economic activities are to be considered sustainable when evaluating investments. Against the opposition of environmental and financial experts, the climate protection movement, and some member-state governments, a majority of MEPs backed the Commission’s proposal to categorize gas and nuclear energy as “green” under this taxonomy. This form of greenwashing will disadvantage small solar projects over large-scale dirty energy enterprises.

Gas Guzzlers

Although the gas lobby presents it as a climate-friendly fossil fuel, it actually releases dangerous quantities of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. Russia used to supply around 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas and almost 30 percent of its oil, mostly by pipeline. However, since the invasion of Ukraine began, Moscow has slashed flows to Germany and completely cut supply to several European countries including Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Poland.

The European Commission is planning to reach political agreements with gas suppliers like Egypt and Israel to increase liquified natural gas (LNG) supplies while continuing its cooperation with major producers like Qatar and Australia. It also wants to explore the export potential of sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, and Angola. It brushes over the global social and environmental implications of this turn with statements that talk vaguely about moving to “shorter and less vulnerable supply chains” and “friend-shoring wherever possible.”

Europe’s energy system based on fossil fuels has centralized ownership structures and a largely centralized approach to generation, distribution, and storage. The corporations behind the energy lobby want to preserve this system and drive the EU hydrogen strategy — a capital-intensive technology that favors large companies. In fact, hydrogen is not an energy source, but rather an energy carrier and storage medium. Its production requires large amounts of energy from gasification processes of fossil fuels — grey or blue hydrogen — or by electrolysis.

Hydrogen is only green if it is produced from renewable electricity and not from natural gas or coal: over 90 percent of hydrogen currently comes from the latter sources. A switch to renewable hydrogen would, at current production levels, already take up 80 percent of the capacity of wind and solar plants in Europe.

The REPowerEU plan “to rapidly reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels and fast forward the green transition” relies on the importation of green hydrogen from countries such as Morocco and Egypt. The revised EU plan includes a four-fold increase in the 2030 target for renewable hydrogen, with nearly 60 percent of the total supply projected to come from outside the EU.

Environmentalists have welcomed renewable hydrogen deals, such as Germany’s recent agreement with Canada. However, this is far from being a miracle solution and could inspire similar deals with countries in the Global South, which would be disastrous for the ecosystems and working classes of those states.

Risky Experiments

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an expensive, unproven, risky, and energy-intensive technology that is supposed to capture CO2 from fossil fuels and store it underground. The recent pressure for energy security has turned it into an official EU project. At the end of August, the Norwegian CCS company Northern Lights, founded by oil firms Equinor, Total, and Shell, agreed to store emissions from Dutch fertilizer firm Yara.

This will mean injecting eight hundred thousand tonnes of CO2 a year from industrial plants into rock formations beneath the North Sea Ocean floor from 2025 on. At the same time, Equinor and Wintershall Dea announced the construction of a nine-hundred-kilometer pipeline from Germany, Europe’s largest emitter, to Norway to transport and store carbon under the North Sea by 2032.

The European Commission’s Strategic Foresight Report in June this year identified as a priority “sustainable access to raw materials critical for the twin transitions” — green and digital — that it wants to carry out. “Greenwashed” trade agreements are part of this vision.

The growth of “clean” energies also implies a rising need for minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite, copper, and aluminium. The EU will need up to eighteen times more lithium and five times more cobalt in 2030 for electric car batteries and energy storage alone. By 2050, it will need sixty times more lithium and fifteen times more cobalt from places like Latin America.

Winter of Discontent

The winter of inflation and energy shortages should give impetus to reform of Europe’s monopolized energy sector. This could include changes to the marginal pricing system of electricity, under which the cost of gas-fired electricity currently determines the overall wholesale price of electricity, even for wind and solar power.

Some countries have introduced windfall taxes on the record gains that energy giants have been making since the beginning of the crisis. The European Parliament recently voted to exit the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) dominated by fossil fuel giants, and the European Commission has agreed on two windfall taxes and is discussing price caps.

However, these steps remain insufficient. European lawmakers are still more worried about “intervening in the market” than they are about supply cuts for their citizens. Left-wing forces should continue the fight for energy democracy and expansion of public services like transport. It should also campaign against the right-wing and corporate forces that are greenwashing unjust forms of energy cooperation and the privatization of energy sectors in other countries.

Overall, it is vital for the Left to fight both right-wing climate change deniers and a moralizing neoliberal discourse that turns the energy crisis into a matter of personal responsibility, urging people to take shorter showers and mainly penalizing the poor. There is no way of addressing this crisis without tackling the big structural forces at work and the vested interests that profit from the status quo.