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The geopolitics of energy security

Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine has exposed Europe's heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuels like never before. Before the war, nations worried about the Kremlin turning the taps off. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell warned that Moscow is "using its energy supplies to Europe as a weapon for geopolitical gain."


Now Russia is waging war, European governments are desperate to loosen Putin's grip on the continent's energy supplies and defund his war machine in a bid to protect Ukraine's freedom and independence. With Russia providing about 40 per cent of Europe's gas and coal and 30 per cent of its oil, the challenge is enormous. Despite Putin weaponising energy supplies against the West, selling fossil fuels to Europe makes up around two-fifths of his government's revenue. Russia cannot afford to lose the European market - and Europe can't afford to switch the taps off itself overnight. But we can quickly start to use much less and speed up our transition to cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy sources to end our reliance.


The speed with which Western countries can ditch Russian supplies will depend on the extent of their reliance. Thanks to the USA's abundant resources, President Biden can ban Russian oil and gas imports, depriving the Kremlin of revenue. The UK's plan to ban oil imports by the end of the year is ambitious but a necessary slower transition to diversify its supply. At the same time, the EU has unveiled a plan to cut its Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year. Although it isn't easy, renewables, diversifying supply, and improving energy efficiency mean the West can start to cripple Russian oil and gas exports quickly.


However, this isn't without cost. Energy prices in Europe had already quadrupled before the war as the global economy re-fired after two years of repeated lockdowns. War in Ukraine will inevitably lead to further disruption in the supply chain, but the West's necessary decision to cut Russian supplies could push costs up even further. Gas and oil prices have already reached record highs, and they will continue to be volatile.


People won't just see this increase in their household electricity and gas bills or at the petrol pump; higher energy costs mean costs will rise across the board. The cost of living crisis underlines why we switch to cheaper and cleaner energy sources instead of securing our supply alone through more volatile fossil fuels.


As the IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol says, the volatility in gas and electricity markets is not because of the clean energy transition - as some have absurdly suggested - but because of East Asia's rapid post-pandemic economic recovery. And, crucially, it's because the Kremlin decided to decrease Russian supplies to the European market ahead of the invasion. European Commission President noted it was "strange" market behaviour that Russia's Gazprom did not increase its supply as prices soared while other suppliers upped their shipments. As long as we are dependent on oil and gas, we will not be immune to Putin's malign influence on the energy market.


Achieving net zero is the best way to lower people's bills, protect against future energy crunches, and, importantly, cripple the Kremlin's war machine. Switching away from oil and gas by diversifying our energy mix and boosting homegrown clean energy will end our reliance on Russia's pipelines and keep household bills down and our homes warm and lit. With 60 million new green jobs on offer globally from the transition to a green, low-carbon economy by 2050, every country should seize this opportunity to decarbonise. It's also why I want to see the UK ahead of the pack, bringing the jobs and new industries home that net zero promises.


Yet despite the global race, we are all in this together. Our energy markets are deeply interconnected. Europe must work together to diversify its supplies, accelerate the deployment of and investment in cleaner energy sources such as wind, solar, green hydrogen and nuclear, and reduce reliance on the volatile international fossil gas markets. By accelerating the UK's plans to produce more energy at home using renewable and nuclear sources, we can help power Europe through interconnectors and export new technologies to help others decarbonise. Similarly, we can import from our allies' successes. Doing this together will help to guarantee European security.


However, we need the EU to be a more reliable partner than it has been. Despite viewing global leadership on climate change as its "man on the moon moment," some of the bloc's decisions have been disappointing. For example, the EU taxonomy plan will label gas as green for sustainable finance investments. Although Austria and Luxembourg plan to fight this in court, it shows the EU isn't prioritising decarbonising its energy system. In the wake of the invasion, the German Chancellor's decision to suspend Nordsteam 2 is welcome. But it's concerning that Germany spent nearly €10 billion on the pipeline instead of clean, secure renewable energy in the first place.


We must also guard against the risk of swapping one energy security problem for another. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, the race for critical minerals will intensify. Securing lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and rare earth minerals to produce clean technologies like electric vehicle batteries and solar panels will dominate the geopolitics of energy security in the coming decades. This market is dominated by China, which has also consistently demonstrated its willingness to use supply chains for its geopolitical gain. Europe must be wary of loosening Putin's grip to hand it to Xi Jinping. That's why we must again diversify our supply and build new trading links to secure Europe's vital supplies.


But this concern is no excuse for going slow. In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, geopolitics and climate change have collided. The answer to both problems is the same - we must swiftly decarbonise our economies. Achieving this will not only secure Europe's energy supply and disarm Putin's war machine, but it will also deliver a cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for future generations. Simply put, net zero is not only good for the planet - it's imperative for security.


First published by Mace Magazine. Alexander Stafford MP (Rother Valley) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.

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