EEurope is sweltering during a prolonged summer heat wave. But the attention of politicians is increasingly focused on the coming winter. Like a succession of recent warnings from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and elsewhere have pointed out, an energy crisis rivaling the oil price shock of the 1970s could come when the weather cools.
As Vladimir Putin seeks to make the West pay for its support of Ukraine since February’s brutal invasion, Moscow has stepped up its pressure on gas exports to Europe. Monday, Russia close its main gas pipeline to Germany – after reducing the flow of gas passing through it by 60%. Apparently Nord Stream 1 has been closed to allow for scheduled maintenance work, but its reopening later this month is far from certain. Gas deliveries to Italy were further reduced by a third; in total, 12 EU countries in total have been totally or partially cut off from Russian gas supply. Supplies therefore dwindle before the period when they will be most needed. And, amid shortages and blackouts, gas prices in Europe are almost 10 times upper than in the United States.
Things could get worse. The IEA has warned that fuel rationing for industry, and even households, could become necessary if Mr Putin decides to cut gas supplies completely over the winter. As Russian troops expand their occupation of eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin aims to exert economic leverage over Europe’s response through a form of energy blackmail. Last week Mr. Putin threatens trigger “catastrophic consequences” in the markets if the West institutes new sanctions, such as an oil price cap.
A freezing winter, runaway inflation and the broader cost-of-living crisis could tip millions of families, undermining support for sanctions against Russia and Western solidarity with Ukraine. Without meaningful intervention to protect the vulnerable and alleviate hardship, there is a risk that, as European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans told The Guardian last week, countries could slide into ” very, very strong conflicts and conflicts”.
A concerted response is therefore urgently needed. Having belatedly recognized the dangers of oil and gas dependence on Moscow, governments must above all accelerate the pace of the transition to renewable energy and promote energy efficiency. But it will be a process that will take years, not months. Alternatives to Russian energy are proving difficult to access in sufficient quantity. The immediate problem of getting through the winter will require decisive short-term action, including saving energy to build gas stocks for the winter. The gravity of the moment is illustrated by the decision of Germany’s Green Minister for Climate Action, Robert Habeck, to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants. At an emergency meeting later this month, EU leaders will collectively discuss winter contingency plans. A pan-European energy “solidarity plan” should ensure a fair distribution of gas supplies in the event of a serious shortage and establish common rules to identify priorities.
Before the invasion, European governments hoped to return to some form of post-Covid political and economic normalcy. Instead, they find themselves faced with another existential threat requiring urgent action. To deal with Mr. Putin’s threats this winter and maintain a united front for Ukraine, a pandemic-like sense of collective solidarity will need to be fostered. It won’t be cheap.