The European Union recognises the need to address climate change as an energy security issue.

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The European Union (EU) regards itself as one of the world leaders on climate change. For all its discussion on mitigation strategies, it has thus far proven incapable of translating the need to address it as an energy security issue into successful action. The two ideals do not present a straightforward compatibility. Climate change is recognised as cosmopolitan, with an agreed set of discourses and levels of policy agreement for solutions. Energy security however tends to be nationalistic and competitive, with this essay contending a realist interpretation of the term. This recognises the state of the world as oppose to neoliberal understandings of nation and international institutions (Proskuryakova 2018, 205). The intersectionality of these ideas occurs whereby climate change perpetuates national interest. To date, the drive for reliable energy supply has surmounted the actions taken towards its outcome. 

Energy security became prominent in the EU between 2006 and 2015, where Russian Gas Crisis’ undermined stable access to those states dependent on the resource. As such, gas has become the main focus of claims regarding security across Europe and is an area of focus for this essay. The ideal is moreover one highly context dependent with a “plurality of possible security meanings” (Judge and Maltby 2017, 182). Utilised here is a conception of energy security recognised by the International Energy Authority (IEA), as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price (2020). In the short-term, this is about the system’s (national policies and international institutions) ability to react if sudden changes to the balance in supply-demand occur, and in the longer-term, on timely investments which fall in line with economic development and environmental needs. Simply put, energy security hinges on an assessment of risks and the development of policies to manage them (Kucharski and Unesaki 2014, 29). This essay will analyse EU climate change mitigation strategies and their addressal or lack thereof in the principles of energy security described.

Why though, is it important to address climate change as an energy security issue? Energy production of all types accounts for 72% of global emissions (C2ES, 2019), with access to energy sources widely recognised as a policy priority for nations. There is therefore dire need to realign assessments of energy security with a reduction in GHG emissions, a transformation from current reliance on fossil fuels. Such low-carbon and high-energy end-use efficiencies (Jonsson et al. 2015, 48) have been explored in great depth by the EU, with aims now to become climate neutral (an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions) by 2050. This objective is recognised in commitments to climate action under the Paris Agreement and laid out by the European Green Deal of January 2020 (European Commission, 2020). Geopolitically, these agreements reinforce transitions from traditional security policy and spheres of influence towards controlling flows in goods, knowledge, capital and information (Goldthau, Keim and Westphal 2018, 1). They however do not explicitly outline how discursive securitisation of energy policy abets exceptional measures on climate change, exemplifying an ongoing dissonance between how it may aid addressing of this ‘super wicked’ problem.

The intensity of warnings by the European Commission for the security of regional energy supplies has steadily increased in the last decade. Temporary disruptions to gas imports, deterioration with political relations to key supplier Russia and enlargement of the EU to include member states highly reliant on external resources (Maltby and Judge 2017, 180), have placed an impotence on the integration of national energy policies, thereby sharing risks and propagating security of supplies and infrastructure. The bloc has an energy efficiency target of reducing energy consumption by 20% come 2020, deemed the most significant miss of all their 2020 goals (Simon, 2020). Poland and Spain are the worst contributors to this, with an increase of 13.7% and 7.5% respectively to 2013 levels (Simon, 2020). These disappointing figures highlight a lack of political appetite within those member states to contribute to climate change mitigation, as the positive effects of this are not being felt in the short term. It solidifies the need to address it within conceptions of energy security, as states prioritise stable supply as paramount for the continuance of economy and society. 

Climate change is arguably the central issue challenging states economically, politically and socially in the coming decades. It requires a scale of change unforeseen by previous generations, and so must be tackled on several fronts simultaneously (Johnson, 2019) to ensure political will and social cohesion will drive such policy over time. By recognising climate change under the parameters of energy security, analysts avoid classical environmentalist implications that sacrifices are required to avoid the effects of GHG emissions (Toke and Vezirgiannidou 2013, 541). Having said this, the European Commission must be careful reframing climate change as exclusively an energy security issue, as solutions could theoretically be found through means other than clean energy. This would undermine the very goal of climate change itself and hinder progression made (Toke and Vezirgiannidou 2013, 541). Instead, energy security should support the reduction of GHG emissions across the EU, something discussed widely though not successfully implemented. 

The EU is heavily dependent on imports of natural gas, which constitutes approximately 21% of overall energy mix, second only to oil (Siddi 2017, 128). Particularly reliant are Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, as well as several east-central European and Balkan states (Siddi 2017, 128). The Russo-Ukrainian gas crisis of 2009 was the culmination of conflict between the supplier company Gazprom and gas transit nation Ukraine. It proved how an overdependence in a single dominant provider leverages their geo-political position, undermining security interests in the dependent nation, be it through price hikes or reduced access. The arising fear of Moscow’s capacity to utilise energy to extract political concessions was tested in 2014, with the Ukraine crisis (and annexation in Crimea) and an assertive Russian foreign policy stance (Orenstein and Keleman 2017, 87). There has hence been pushback by the states aforementioned for increased securitisation and of a geopolitical approach prioritising non-Russian gas supplies (Siddi 2017, 127).

Amidst these salient concerns, the EU energy mix continues to hold a 55% dependency rate (percentage economic reliance on imports to meet energy needs), of which 30% of oil and 40% of natural gas is received via pipelines from Russia (Eurostat, 2017). The Southern Gas Corridor (SDC) is an attempt to diversify from this dependency, by creating pipelines to the Middle East and North Africa at a cost of $40 billion (Gotev, 2020). This two-decade long project has locked the EU into further fossil fuel dependent economy, distracting infrastructure, finances and general resources from renewable energy. It is a direct contradiction of the EU’s decarbonisation agenda (Siddi 2017, 127). The SDC effectively conveys how climate change is not adequately incorporated into energy security issues and that reliable supply of any kind is paramount for member states. This undermines otherwise credible developments in mitigation strategies that correlate with a more stable energy supply.

Currently, the European Commission focuses predominantly on exploiting existing wind power in the North Sea. TenneT, the German arm of the bigger Dutch transmission network group, is responsible for linking onshore grids to offshore turbines, transporting power to Germany’s industrial south (Eckert, 2020). Investments are then refinanced by grid free income collected by consumers via bills. In 2019, 8.3% of German power production was generated in this way (Eckert, 2020). Bottlenecks and delays are however arising in onshore construction of power lines, hampered by red tape. Concerns have been raised however that a single grid network may lend to sensitivities in fair distribution across the bloc. This falls under the generated concept of an Energy Union Framework Strategy which targets a fully integrated internal energy market, energy efficiency, supply security and climate action. It exemplifies a significant reform to European energy governance, streamlining policy and regional cooperation with climate goals (Szulecki et al. 2016, 548). The framework has not yet been approved due to conflicting national interests yet would adequately address the need to recognise climate change as an energy security issue. 

Nations are unlikely to dramatically address and implement climate change mitigation policies if it will directly impact energy supply or create second-order effects which potentially exacerbate social instability and disrupt energy systems. Additionally, the EU Climate and Energy Framework for 2030 is unlikely to realign divergent state energy objectives, and so does not currently incentivise a decarbonised region. As 2020 EU President, Germany is ideally placed for generating the political momentum to facilitate technology transfer and to cushion political risk premiums that might prevent sustainable investments and decarbonisation pathways. Moreover, the nation stresses renewable energy as a solution to climate change problems. It therefore should hold particular interest in an upgrading of the energy system, which increases efficiency, and injection of renewables (Goldthau, Keim and Westphal 2018, 4). This would come at a useful time, as much of Europe’s generating capacity has exceeded its working life, with transmission networks due for modernisation (hence the development of the SDC) (Werenfels and Westphal 2010, 6). Furthermore, Mediterranean states require new energy sources to meet rapidly growing demand for electricity. Securing cost-effective, stable and renewable supply is key for the EU and its member states in addressing climate change most effectively.

Importing dispatchable solar electricity from North Africa is considered a potential and attractive option to appease this European need. Solar power potential in the Sahara is significant. This type of energy is abundant and can be transported long distances (Benasla 2019, 1). Moreover, when combined with thermal energy storage, dispatchable supply according to demand is possible, saving on unnecessary transportation costs (Benasla 2019, 1). This technology could be used for balancing domestic energy production, reinforcing the continuance of wind power in the EU. Unlike the previously outlined need arising for improved grid operation, no natural incentive exists for cooperative building of renewable energy capacities (Umpfenbach, Graf and Bausch 2015, 1). Implementation is thus required on the basis that it is the best option in diversification of energy sources, an indirect addressing of climate change for energy security interests. It has the capacity to positively influence power markets with lower electricity costs (Benasla 2019, 7). It is through such cases that the EU will chance greatest success on climate change mitigation.

The EU relies on values which promote liberalisation with free and transparent market economies, as is adopted in energy security approaches (Metais 2013, 12). It is something additionally evident in approaches to climate change policy, with the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) ‘cap and trade’ system tasking private enterprise for reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions (Wheeler, 2017). It has however lacked inclusion of energy markets which would encourage cleaner investment decisions for increased revenue, going against security principles of affordable supply. 

France introduced its domestic carbon tax in 2014 to cover those companies not already regulated by the bloc. It includes a series of feed-in tariffs, tax benefits and subsidies for heat generation in renewable energy plants (Res Legal, 2012). These are a key component in assuring security for France, however, undermine free market principles. France already has a significantly low-carbon electricity mix, owing to the key but changing role of nuclear (Eurostat, 2020). Where market liberalisation may otherwise take effect in the EU and its proposed strategy, the nation has chosen to explore a visceral and tightly government-controlled approach to increasing its national energy mix with renewables. The EU must recognise that securitisation of the liberal market would require such shifts to state-led systems of energy governance (Judge and Maltby 2017, 185). In doing so, it will renounce liberal principles aforementioned to allow nations which work outside the norms of cap and trade systems, when it would result in a limited capacity to assure energy mix and the uptake of renewables. The EU has not accepted this, highlighting its incapacity to commit to the need to address climate change as an energy security issue and to give it the best chance for successful implementation. 

The EU now recognises a need to be carbon neutral by 2050. To achieve this, it must reframe member states’ energy mix to that of renewables, something only achieved through a recognition of their continued security. It must therefore generate mitigation strategies which do not interrupt the availability of energy sources, at an affordable price. Potential agreements such as the Energy Union Framework Strategy, some state development in renewables and improved technologies to facilitate transported solar energy from North Africa signify steps to align these ideals. However, continued lack in diversification from Russian gas, the slow updating of infrastructure systems and the complexities of national interest have held back process. The EU therefore, while recognising need to address climate change as an energy security issue, have not yet implemented the action required for deemed success. 

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