The climate crisis has led the planet to a state of emergency. The average temperature has already risen by 1.1 degree Celsius compared to the pre-industrial levels, and it’s close to reaching 1.5°C, a limit that, if surpassed, there will be irreversible effects to ecosystems and human life. 1
In fact, based on more recent data, it is estimated that the increase by 1.5 °C is almost inevitable within the coming decades. In order to keep the temperature at this level, the measures taken for the decrease of greenhouse gas emissions have to be implemented immediately. More specifically, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that in order to hold the temperature increase to 1.5 °C, greenhouse gas emissions should peak by 2025 at the latest and then decrease rapidly in order to be halved by 2030 and reach almost zero by 2050.
In a nutshell, this is the crude reality of climate change and the urgent need that drives all policies for its mitigation and battling on a global level. As a response to the facts above, the European Commission announced the European Green Deal in 2019. 2 This announcement happened in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement for climate change, the “green wave” that swept the European elections of the same year, but also the young people’s demand for climate action, as expressed by the thousands that took to the streets of European cities. Essentially, it is the EU’s growth strategy expressed in environmental terms rather than financial ones. Its main goal is the European economy’s transformation in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
In the past couple of years, with that as its compass, the EU has prioritised clean energy transition. Still, the numerous crises that have taken place since the announcement of the European Green Deal – e.g. the health, financial and energy crises – have led many to dispute the Deal itself as well as the immediate necessity for a green transition. Especially nowadays, given the war Russia is waging against Ukraine, the crucial issue of energy efficiency is often presented as more important than the green transition, with many voices within Europe as well as in Greece advocating for a return to lignite or for exploring alternative fossil fuel sources. How much have the attempts to deviate from the European Green Deal affected the goal for a green energy transition, though? And at the end of the day, are achieving the EU’s climate targets and securing EU’s energy supply contradictory priorities?
It’s a fact that the European Green Deal was disputed by several almost immediately after it was approved by the European Commission. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, many claimed that the European Green Deal’s implementation should be postponed in order to prioritise dealing with the economic effects of the pandemic. After a politically intense period, it was agreed that countries would focus on green recovery, meaning an economic restructuring that would be done in a way that’s consistent with the necessity to tackle climate change. An indicative example of that is that in the new long-term European budget for 2021-2027, after adaptations that were made due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is stated that 30% of assets of the several European funds should be directed towards climate action. Similarly, the Recovery and Resilience Facility that has a budget of 750 bn Euros will invest 37% of its assets to actions with a clear ecological target.
Soon after, and while the health crisis was still ongoing, the initial political commitment for climate neutrality by 2050 became a legally binding obligation with the signing of the European Climate Law (ECL). ECL added another legally binding intermediate target of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990. A few months later, the European Commission announced the proposal bundle “fit for 55” 3 for the amendment of the EU’s climate and energy legislation so that it conforms with the updated climate-related targets.
Today, the European Green Deal and its goals are being disputed once more, due to the escalating energy crisis that broke out in 2021 with the prices’ increase and that is now at its peak as a result of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. The common central demand for energy independence from Russian gas and energy efficiency is presented in several member-states including Greece as contradictory or incompatible with the green transition planning.
Many suggest a return to lignite and hard coal solutions. Such an option isn’t environmentally consistent, since lignite and hard coal are the most polluting fuels on the planet and their use is absolutely incompatible with the agreed-upon climate targets. Therefore, it is commonplace that alleviating the climate crisis won’t be possible if we don’t exclude lignite and hard coal from our energy mix once and for all.
In fact, a return to lignite isn’t even financially efficient, especially in Greece that has by far the worst quality of lignite in the whole of Europe. The CO2 rate is increasing 4 despite its initial temporary decrease during the first few days of the war. Also in the undergoing amendment of the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) in order for it to comply with the fit for 55 package, the majority of the political groups agree to increase rather than put a halt in the targets’ ambitions. This will lead to a further increase in coal’s price in the emissions trading field. Therefore, burning lignite is only better in terms of cost-effectiveness temporarily, because of the current spike in the mineral gas rates, but it certainly isn’t a rentable long-term solution.
Others advocate for alternative gas sources, investing in different gas storage infrastructure or, as is the case in Greece, completing risk-bearing pipelines such as EastMed or even recommencing hydrocarbon exploration and mining expeditions. Those options, not only do they have a heavy environmental footprint, but also their supporters fail to mention that they won’t even help decrease the current energy rates, as they need a long time in order to be completed. So at the end of the day, all they’d manage would be to bind invaluable economic resources that could be used for cleaner and more effective investment options.
All that the above-mentioned suggestions can do is to extend Europe and Greece’s dependence on fossil fuels, something that renders them politically, economically and energetically vulnerable – as proven also on the occasion of the Russian-Ukrainian war.
For the time being, said suggestions haven’t been accepted by Brussels, despite what’s being written on the subject in Greece.
On 8th March, the European Union announced the launch of REPowerEU 5 , a measures’ package that aims to manage the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion in Ukraine – measures that seem to be leading the EU towards a different direction, without straying from the European Green Deal’s priorities. Said measures didn’t come out of nowhere, as they are the advancement of response plans concerning the energy rates crisis that had started long before the war in Ukraine, in mid 2021, and are now adapting by setting as a primary goal the phase-off of Russian mineral gas as soon as possible.
The EU-27 imports 90% of the mineral gas it consumes and 40% of that quantity comes from Russia (2020 share). As a first step, the intention is to shrink dependence by ⅔ (or 100 bcm) within 2022. 60% of that decrease will happen thanks to alternative gas supplying sources (LNG and other pipelines) in order to cover urgent needs that might occur, while the rest will be from expediting renewable energy development for electricity production, from heat pumps’ installation, biomethane and green hydrogen production as well as from additional measures that will reinforce energy efficiency. There is no mention whatsoever of lignite or hard coal in the proposal bundle. The REPowerEU package is thus coming to practically reinforce and expedite the fit for 55 predictions. The new proposal that will be announced in May, will most probably contain additional measures that will lead to Europe’s total independence from Russian fossil fuels (gas, oil and hard coil) by 2027.
Targets that up until now seemed unrealistic, no longer do. In fact, according to an independent study by four think tanks 6the EU-27’s capacity is underestimated, as the complete independence from Russian gas (155 bcm in 2020) is possible by 2025, even without constructing new mineral gas storage facilities. It’d be possible just by using the renewable energy development assets, promoting heating system replacement from radiators that use fossil fuels to heat pumps and increasing energy efficiency. The study indirectly shows how much better Europe’s situation would be if the green energy transition had advanced faster.
The current crisis is creating demanding circumstances but at the same time, it contains certain prospects. This is why any short-term solutions to tackle the energy crisis shouldn’t undermine the existing targets of the battle against climate change, neither on a European or national level.
Greece is one of the countries that have supported the European Green Deal since the beginning. In fact, following its decision to proceed with a lignite phase-out in September 2019, Greece was the first European lignite-producing country that committed to becoming independent from lignite before 2030 – a development that put the country in a leading position in terms of climate policy-making.
The reduction of lignite in the energy mix is the most environmentally and financially consistent choice. The same goes for the gas phase-out, since the significant increase of gas in the past two years (2020-2021)7 has rendered the country vulnerable to the energy rates’ crisis. At the same time, Greece is for the time being in a more favourable position than other member states of the EU-27, since its dependence on mineral gas concerns mainly electricity production, so it’s easier in comparison to transition from gas to renewable energy sources. Especially solar and wind energy, which are already mature and their cost is steadily decreasing, could be Greece’s comparative advantage. If combined with the necessary electricity storage infrastructure, they could be our new national fuel. The above actions along with investments in energy saving and energy efficiency – fields in which the country is lagging behind – could lead in the electricity production’s complete independence from fossil fuels by 2035, while securing Greece’s energy efficiency.
Before we rush to implement policies that undermine our climate targets and bind financial assets, we should explore how this country could reach green energy security and obtain a leading role in the EU’s green energy autonomy strategy. The same goes with the European Union as a whole. To this day, the criticism against the European Green Deal hasn’t managed to cause a deviation from the path of green energy transition. The means and the technologies exist, the citizens demand it, political forces coalesce and the planning is doable and economically rentable. The opposing voices aren’t just a reactionary minority though, but a minority that is putting at risk all life on this planet. Will we allow this to happen?