Energy is Europe’s quiet crisis. While the clamour of failing economies, desperate migrants and political clashes grabs the headlines, energy policy is rarely front-page news, but it should be — the statistics are shocking.
Europe imports over half the energy it consumes. Only Denmark is left as an exporter. We import 90 percent of our crude oil. We import 66 percent of our natural gas. Even 40 percent of our nuclear fuel comes from beyond European borders.
The European Union is the world’s biggest energy importer, a title that costs over one billion euros a day to maintain. For a resource-rich continent, that’s ridiculous. But many of these imports come from volatile conflict-torn or politically instable regions; turning the ridiculous into a risk.
A stable, cost-effective energy supply is critical to get Europe back on her feet. It’s critical to helping fragile economies grow, critical to providing jobs, critical to reducing the number of families in fuel poverty — in short, critical to tackling the huge number of problems which already need to be tackled.
Why then do we risk dividing Europe’s weaker economies from its stronger ones by relying on unstable energy sources?
Some of this is about Russia
Even Compare the Market’s Sergei would agree that Europe has a rogue gas supplier. The Kremlin, many a time, has threatened to — or actually has — cut off continental Europe’s gas supply. Prices have been hiked and energy contracts have been used as foreign policy levers. Ukraine faced a 44 percent price increase after Russian-owned Gazprom insisted Kiev had defaulted on debt.
But switching isn’t “simple.”
In 2013, a third of Europe’s gas came from Gazprom. Our reliance on Russian energy renders Moscow virtually immune from the consequences of its policies — from the Crimean annexation to its action in Ukraine. In a vicious cycle, as reliance on Russian energy continues, the Kremlin becomes increasingly Machiavellian, further threatening Europe’s energy supplies.
It’s Mostly A Bigger Problem
Russian gas is only part of the picture. Much of Europe’s 90-percent-imported crude oil supply is equally precarious. Sophisticated missiles and increasingly sophisticated Somali pirates all threaten the petrol in our pumps. From the Suez Canal to the Strait of Hormuz, our imported petroleum travels a perilous route.
A fifth of the world’s oil is transported through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran continually threatens to block in response to sanctions. The Malacca Strait carries around 40 percent of global trade and a third of seaborne traded oil. Ninety percent of Japanese oil comes through this lane, as does 80 percent of China’s. In a region where maritime territorial disputes are ten a penny, the race is on to populate the strait with naval hardware (mainly submarines) to deter any neighbours from imposing a blockade.
When energy is traded between states with different political outlooks energy can become a tool of politics. Where vulnerable transportation exists it could become a tool of war.
A Better Approach
As our world becomes increasingly interconnected it becomes more difficult to separate energy from the other security issues we face. Energy is the thread that binds poverty and education, disease and women’s rights, climate change and migration, economic stability and resource scarcity — and lies behind how all of those interact with each other.
A lack of energy keeps girls out of school. A supply keeps the lights on in hospitals. A lack of energy forces migration. A supply bolsters economies. A lack of energy reduces the amount of food each area produces. A supply helps us communicate, do business and grow.
Energy is fundamental to life. And that means we need to take energy security for what it really is. It’s time to get real.
It’s about diversifying from volatile supplies.
It’s also about overcoming energy poverty — families struggling to heat their homes and the one in five people globally without access to electricity.
It’s about investing in technology that will form our energy future.
It’s about creating energy equality, where four million women don’t die every year from breathing in harmful kerosene fumes from their cooking stoves. Four million a year — that’s more than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Will We Get Real?
June the 15th represents the mid-summer moment each year when Europe has used up its home-grown energy supplies and has to switch to imports. June the 15th also represents the solution — it’s Global Wind Day.
Sustainable use of Europe’s renewable resources is the only viable solution to tackling Europe’s energy insecurity. Renewable energy means less reliance on imports. Renewables mean skilled jobs, economic benefit and community empowerment. Most of all, renewables work. In Scotland they’re already our largest source of power, providing the equivalent of 46 percent of the electricity we use.
Yes, there is still work to be done. We must keep developing storage systems, keep improving the technology and continue to lower the costs. But Scotland in particular has shown that renewables can be the backbone of an energy portfolio.
Renewables are both the action needed to beat our insecurity and the strategy for a sustainable European future. They are both the battle cry and a song of hope.
Lead image: Wind turbines. Credit: Shutterstock.