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How Putin made the Green Deal great again

The EU’s Green Deal has a new purpose — not just to fight against climate change, but also against Vladimir Putin and Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

The Russian president’s attack on Ukraine is creating newfound unity in cutting off one of Moscow’s biggest sources of cash. That’s something repeatedly promised during past times of Kremlin aggression, but it was never delivered.

On Tuesday, the European Commission rolled out a package of emergency response measures that, if fully implemented by EU countries, would slash the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas imports — currently 40 percent of all consumption — by two-thirds this year and entirely by the end of this decade. 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “a focused acceleration of the European Green Deal” as a “strategic investment in our independence.” 

A large share of the initial savings would come from finding new suppliers of gas. But the EU wants to double down with a rapid boost of renewable energy and measures to cut energy use. Commission Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans called it “a huge opportunity.”

The new initiatives show the Commission once again turning to the Green Deal, its flagship climate package, as a way to make the most of a crisis. Two years ago, the EU put the Green Deal at the core of its pandemic recovery plan. Now, the deal — meant to make the EU climate neutral by 2050 — is empowering Brussels to unite national capitals in the fight against Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

The move is not without risks. Soaring energy prices will test public appetite for more climate investment. For the Commission’s strategy to work, it will need EU leaders to throw their weight behind the effort at an informal summit in Versailles later this week.

In draft conclusions for that summit, leaders would “phase out” Russian fossil fuel imports by accelerating some aspects of the Green Deal and securing new gas supplies. 

Such a move would hurt Putin badly. Oil and gas revenues are more than a third of Russia’s entire government budget, according to the Bruegel think tank, with Europe taking 75 percent of Russian natural gas and 60 percent of its crude oil exports.

“There’s no question that what Putin is doing is absolutely disastrous for the commercial position of Russia,” said Thane Gustafson, professor of political science at Georgetown University and author of “Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change.”

Gaining support

Initial responses to the crisis show that some EU governments and lawmakers are getting on board.

Germany has moved ahead of the Commission’s recommendations with plans to speed up its wind and solar deployment with the goal of reaching nearly 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. 

A group of countries from Northern and Western Europe are pushing in private for energy efficiency and renewable energy files of EU climate legislation to be fast-tracked, a diplomat said. Center-right lawmakers in the European Parliament’s largest grouping, the European People’s Party, asked publicly for the targets in those files to be increased.

An EU official said the crisis had awakened even previously skeptical EU countries to the value of Brussels’ plan to decarbonize Europe’s energy supply. 

Last week, a cross-party group of 17 Central and Eastern European lawmakers asked the Commission to boost renewable energy in light of the invasion, although they also nodded to their region’s dependence on coal and said the Commission should look into establishing a “new strategy towards strategic solid fossil fuel assets.” Timmermans has said countries may need to burn coal in the short term to help ease off Russian gas supplies.

Some politicians are promoting energy savings as a sacrifice for the greater good.

Everyone must “make an effort” to cut their personal energy use and create “total independence in terms of energy,” French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

“If you want to hurt Putin a little bit, save energy,” said German Climate and Economy Minister Robert Habeck. 

The International Energy Agency last week said that if Europeans turned down their thermostats by just 1 degree, gas demand would plummet by 10 billion cubic meters a year — about 6 percent of current Russian imports.

German green groups have seized on the war in Ukraine to revive calls for an Autobahn speed limit to save on both fuel and emissions. 

Pain points

Putin has handed the Green Dealers a powerful new rallying cry, but such a dramatic shift in the bloc’s energy and climate policies is already creating stress — everyone is suddenly pushing their “pet project,” said the EU diplomat.

Farmers have responded with panic. Under pressure to weaken the Green Deal’s sustainable food policy, Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski admitted last week that Brussels may have to revisit part of the program.

And while Germany has said it’s working on finding alternatives to Russian gas and oil, Berlin has so far rejected calls for an embargo. Habeck last week warned that an immediate stop to imports would endanger “societal peace” with high energy prices.

In Germany, conservative politicians have called for delays to planned coal and nuclear phaseouts — something the government has so far rejected.

“An immediate exit from Russian energy imports is emotionally understandable, but without a replacement, it will be cold and expensive,” said Bavarian Premier Markus Söder. “We shouldn’t shut down anything that’s still running — that goes for coal and nuclear.”

Poland’s biggest coal utility PGE seized on Timmermans’ recent comments that coal-dependent countries might keep burning the fuel before jumping to renewables, saying it’s a vindication of skepticism over a rapid coal phaseout, and Polish Climate and Environment Minister Anna Moskwa called on the EU to suspend the Emissions Trading System and the Fit for 55 emissions reduction effort. “Let’s focus on the Union’s security and energy independence,” she said.

Italy, which imports 90 percent of its natural gas, with 40 percent coming from Russia, is well aware of the political and economic pain of dropping Russian energy.

On Monday, when von der Leyen declared a bid for energy independence in Brussels, she was standing beside Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. 

Draghi’s priorities were measures to cushion the impact on billpayers while securing Italy’s energy supply via new sources of gas and firing up coal plants to ward off any shortages.

Greece has also proposed setting up an EU solidarity fund to ease the price hit to energy consumers.

Draghi and other leaders face the tough political reality of trying to convince voters that a time of record energy prices is the time for more, not less, public spending on the energy transition. 

It’s a danger Timmermans is alive to, despite the fact, he said, that spending on clean energy and efficiency would eventually bring bills down. 

“People will not hear that message because they simply are afraid they cannot afford to heat their homes anymore,” he said. “That is something we need to address with a huge sense of urgency if we want support for our policies to continue.”

Timmermans admitted there would be pain in Europe as the Continent seeks to punish Putin for his “barbarism” in Ukraine. But he said the principle should be that “any measure we take will come at a cost, but it is a cost we can bear.”

Zosia Wanat, America Hernandez, Paola Tamma, Lili Bayer and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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