As Germany moves away from Russian energy imports, new dependencies on fossil energies must be avoided. The potential alternative from energy-saving, renewables and European cooperation offers excellent opportunities in the short, medium and long terms. But this will require new, green energy partnerships built on a new foundation of values.
Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine is a wake-up call, alerting us to the fatal economic and political dependency on imported fossil energy we have got ourselves into.
Most recently, Germany imported 55% of its fossil gas from Russia. Although energy imports of oil and coal from Russia are not quite as high, there is a considerable dependency for those energies as well. In a European context, the same also goes for uranium.
As hard as it is to hear, this German dependency is one of the things that enabled the war in Ukraine. In return for supplies of coal, oil and gas, billions of euros have been transferred to Russia, much of it ending up in Putin’s war chest.
This dependency did not come about by chance. It is the result of a deliberate policy. Over the last 16 years, German governments under the leadership of Angela Merkel and her long-serving foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left the way clear for energy imports from Russia. Successive Merkel governments ignored concerns of European partners. Warnings from the USA were dismissed as interference. Criticism voiced in Germany and opposition circles in Russia was swept aside.
Nord Stream 2: example of pro-Russian and pro-fossil energy policy
The most tangible symbol of this pro-Russian and pro-fossil energy policy was the construction of the Baltic Sea pipeline, North Stream 2. Despite all the warnings of European and transatlantic partners, not least Ukraine, the project was pushed forward by German political circles working alongside Putin’s henchmen. All political levels were involved: local politicians, who benefited from the sponsoring of North Stream 2. State and federal authorities, which made the decisions they were told to. The federal ministry of the economy, which helped to overcome a few legal obstacles. And finally, the Chancellor herself, determinedly selling the project as a “private finance initiative” at every stage.
It was never a secret that the aim of North Stream 2 was to bypass Ukraine as a gas transit country entirely. And the timeframe for its construction and commissioning was scheduled in such a way that its capacities would be available right at the start of Putin’s war of aggression.
At least the complaints made by Deutsche Umwelthilfe served to thwart the time schedule, as they forced a considerable postponement of the construction in late 2020 and early 2021. Consequently, the crucial decision on certifying the pipeline’s operating company as the network operator did not fall until after the German elections of 2021 – meaning that after the Russian attack on Ukraine, even the Chancellor’s office and Ministry of Finance could hardly deny that the commissioning of the pipeline needed to be suspended. This also brought the certification process to a halt and consequently, the project is now mothballed.
This process and its developments are still relevant. There are important lessons to be learnt for the decisions to be made at the moment from the construction and commissioning of the North Stream pipeline and the political initiatives surrounding it.
New dependencies on fossil energy must be avoided
It is blatantly obvious that new dependencies on fossil energies must be avoided. Such dependencies are not reduced simply by changing country of supply – swapping Russia for Qatar. This might help towards diversification, but it does not solve the environmental, climate and human rights problems associated with supplies of fossil energies. In fact, the reverse is true: a fossil trap is currently being sprung. For additional supplies from different countries of origin, new funding projects would have to be set in place in view of existing contractual obligations. In other words, this strategy of switching supplier triggers new fossil production and therefore generates additional greenhouse gas emissions.
This would also be the case with supplies of liquid natural gas from the USA, where many fracking projects are enjoying an unexpected second spring courtesy of spiralling gas prices. This is based on a long-term supply agreement entered into between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and US President Joe Biden. This agreement, which is specifically geared towards long-term partnership, creates a new dependency that will lead to an expansion of US fracking production, which is extremely harmful to the environment and climate. US environmental organisations such as the Sierra Club fear that such a move would endanger plans to comply with national climate objectives. And we would shoulder the responsibility for that as well: fracking gas produced in the USA would be generating heat in German boiler rooms. The climate footprint on either side of the Atlantic would be devastating.
No new liquefied natural gas terminals need to be built in Germany
The same political mistakes that were made when planning and building North Stream 2 must not be repeated with the planned liquid natural gas terminals. Instead of dismissing all criticism out of hand and leaving questions unanswered, the German government must make a decision that is based upon traceable and transparent criteria.
The question that must be answered first and foremost is whether there is even any need to create a new dependency on fossil energy imports.
The Deutsche Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (German Institute for Economic Research, DIW) has in fact already answered this question, following a comprehensive investigation: supplies of Russian gas can be forgone entirely without having to build new liquid natural gas terminals in Germany. This would require massive investments in reducing energy consumption, forging ahead with the expansion of the use of renewables and coordinating the procurement of liquid natural gas via existing terminals abroad with our European neighbours.
These are all measures that will call for enormous political efforts; but so too does the current initiative to build new liquid natural gas terminals, which, being classified as hazardous operations, are subject to lengthy and complex approval procedures.
Conversely, the alternative from energy savings, renewables and European cooperation offers far better opportunities in the short, medium and long terms. In the short term, cancelling Russian gas supplies creates the necessary environment conducive to change that would finally allow the alternatives to be developed with the necessary speed. Furthermore, energy savings, for instance through a speed limit, are actually possible, whereas it would take several years for the liquid natural gas terminals to be up and running. In the medium and longer terms, not only would the economic costs be far lower, but considerable CO2 savings would also be made.
Germany can shape the energy transition as an energy importer
But the challenge of avoiding new dependencies will not go away: it is clear that, because of its population, industrial structures and available surface area, Germany is destined to remain a net energy importer. Infrastructure and partnerships with energy suppliers are therefore unavoidable.
Forging ahead with these partnerships now offers an excellent opportunity: they can be geared towards the traditional fossil energy supply countries, but do not have to be. An interesting example is Norway: the country has massive potential for renewable energy that could be used to develop the provision of green hydrogen.
Furthermore, and most importantly, there is the opportunity to link the production of renewable energies to the energy transition in the countries of origin. Embedding it in other policy areas, such as climate, human rights and democracy, is also urgently needed! The corresponding expansion of renewable energies and reform of value creation chains can and must lead to economic prosperity, fairness in development policy terms and the bolstering of human rights and climate protection.
Meeting climate targets with energy partnerships
All of the above means that the German government must opt for a coordinated approach: while energy partnerships traditionally come under the aegis of the economy ministry, the foreign office is responsible for international climate policy. Involving the Ministry for Economic Cooperation is another important step. Working together, these ministries must develop a strategy for sources of renewable energy that will not only cover Germany’s energy shortfall, but also take care of the development interests of the countries of origin as well as global climate protection objectives.
In this context, dependencies can also be defined in a positive light, as responsibilities. Our partners for the energy transition will also need predictability for the investments ahead of them, as will we for the necessary investments in this country. The new alliances are built upon reciprocity. For this reason, the partnerships will need a strong foundation of values – a world away from the unilateral dependencies we have at the moment.
The German government must make building these partnerships its number one energy policy priority. This will determine whether we will be able to meet our climate objectives in the long term. This approach will allow Germany to do away with old dependencies and develop new forms of collaboration.
The original German version of this article was first published on boell.de.