Europe is in danger of highly damaging “very, very strong conflict and strife” this winter over high energy prices, and should make a short-term return to fossil fuels to head off the threat of civil unrest, the vice-president of the European Commission has warned.
Frans Timmermans, the second most senior official in the EU, said the threat of unrest this winter, a deliberate outcome of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, must take precedence over the climate crisis.
He said: “If our society descends into very, very strong conflict and strife because there is no energy, we’re certainly not going to make our [climate] goals. We’re certainly not going to get where we need to get if the lack of energy leads to strong disruption in our societies, and we need to make sure people are not in the cold in the coming winter.
“We need to make sure we keep our industry, as much as possible, functioning because the one thing that could help Putin is divisions in our society.”
People suffering from the cold this winter because they cannot afford heating would also be disastrous for solving the climate crisis, Timmermans argued in an interview with the Guardian in Brussels.
“I’ve been in politics long enough, over 30 years, to understand that people worry most about the immediate crisis and not about the long-term crisis And if we don’t address the immediate crisis, we will certainly be off-track with the long-term crisis,” he said.
Timmermans said his goal was to reassure the public of the EU, by 1 November at the latest, that they would not face a crisis in heating their homes this winter.
“I honestly believe that if we can’t give that guarantee then society is on edge, as it is everywhere because of high energy prices, inflation, food prices rising rapidly – because of this uncertainty caused by the war,” he said. “Putin is using all the means he has to create strife in our societies, so we have to brace ourselves for a very difficult period.”
Coal would have to be used, he said. “If we were just to say no more coal right now, we wouldn’t be very convincing in some of our member states and we would contribute to tensions within our society getting even higher.”
Energy prices have soared across the world as a result of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but Europe has been particularly badly hit. Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Germany – the EU’s biggest economy – relied on Russia for the majority of its gas. Overall, Europe depends on Russia for about 40% of its gas.
The German government has started to increase electricity production from coal-fired power stations, the dirtiest form of energy, while allowing the phaseout of nuclear power to continue as planned.
Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, also insisted that the G7 reverse its stance on banning overseas investment in gas projects to assist in the exploration of new fossil fuel fields in developing countries.
The European parliament also voted this week to class some gas and nuclear power projects as “clean” energy for investment purposes, to the dismay of climate campaigners who worry the climate agenda has been lost amid fears over energy prices.
Timmermans, who is in charge of the EU’s green deal and leads the bloc in international climate negotiations, insisted that a short-term return to fossil fuels was compatible with limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the goal affirmed at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow last November.
He also gave qualified support for the expansion of fossil fuel exploration in parts of Africa that civil society leaders have already warned would lock Africa into a high-emissions future without benefiting ordinary people.
“In this global situation right now, with the huge shortage of fossil fuel, how can you say to anyone who has fossil fuels: ‘You should not be exploiting that.’” he asked. “How can we not face the immediate challenge of having to find alternatives for Russian gas, and saying to others: ‘You should not be exploiting gas.’ That would be hypocritical. I can’t say that.”
But Timmermans dampened expectations for Cop27, the next global climate summit taking place this November in Sharm el-Sheikh. At Cop26, countries failed to produce national plans on cutting emissions in line with the 1.5C limit they affirmed, and so agreed to return to the negotiating table this year with tougher plans called nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
These were unlikely to be forthcoming as promised, however, given the energy and food crises and the war in Ukraine, Timmermans said. “I don’t see that many new NDCs on the horizon, frankly,” he said, pointing to Australia, with its new government, as a rare exception.
“I don’t have the highest expectations for this by Sharm el-Sheikh because the conference in Bonn that was just finished clearly showed that there’s not much appetite in increasing NDCs, and there is a lot of frustration in the developing world about the money that was promised and is not yet fully on the table.”
Timmermans blamed Putin for this failure. “Everything hinges on the energy transition and energy is at the heart of this.
“If one of the major energy producers in the world is causing this disruption, as Russia is doing right now, obviously the rest of the world will be edgy in terms of what happens in the energy markets, and obviously that has an implication of can we make further commitments on reducing our emissions given the situation?”
Read More: Risk of ‘conflict and strife’ in Europe over energy crisis, EU deputy warns | Energy