Germany is on the verge of an energy crisis. In the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent European sanctions against Russia, Russia has threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to Germany and other European states. The results of this sudden interruption in the Russian natural gas supply would be catastrophic for Germany. Natural gas generates around 15% of its electricity needs through burning natural gas, heats about half of all German households, and currently provides for around one-third to one-half of Germany’s gas needs. The complete cutoff of Russian gas supplies could mean gas rationing and the shutdown of industrial production.
To prevent this, cities and organisations, such as Germany’s largest landlord, all over Germany have made contingency plans to deal with a gas shortage. The German government, in particular, has urged people to lower their energy consumption where possible and has activated the second stage of a three-stage plan to increase gas stores in Germany to 90% capacity. Concerningly, Germany has had to reopen or delay the closure of more than two dozen coal plants to make up for the decrease in electrical generation from burning natural gas. This will increase Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and is a blow to the fight against climate change.
German Reliance on Russian Natural Gas and Its Impacts on EU Foreign Policy
This energy crisis, however, has been decades in the making. From the 1970s, when Germany began buying natural gas from the then Soviet Union, experts have been warning of the danger of depending on Russia for energy needs. Yet, despite these warnings, Germany and other European states continued to increase the amount of gas imported from Russia. Some European countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, began to switch away in the 2010s from relying on Russia for gas, especially after Russia manipulated the supply to Europe several times over the past two decades.
Since the intensified Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, the European Union (EU) has introduced many sanctions against Russia. These sanctions cover wide swathes of Russia’s economy, including oil, but these restrictions notably exclude natural gas. In fact, in the two-month period after the initial invasion, EU member states paid more than €44 billion (CAD 57.8 billion) to Russia for fossil fuels. Many of Russia’s biggest oil and gas companies are partly or fully state-owned, meaning that much of this money has gone to the Russian war effort and undermines the EU’s support for Ukraine.
While several European states import natural gas from Russia, Germany stands to lose the most from this natural gas crisis. Firstly, Germany, with over 84 million inhabitants, is the largest EU state with significant dependence on Russian natural gas. Second, Germany uses natural gas in a wide variety of ways; this is especially true in German industries, where industrial processes often rely on natural gas. The German government has already stated that households and hospitals will be prioritised if natural gas needs to be rationed, meaning that industrial processes may need to be shuttered or stopped. This would have adverse effects on Germany’s economy, with estimates that the German economy could contract by 12.7% in the second half of 2022 if Russian gas supplies were completely cut off. It could also worsen the supply chain crisis around the world. What’s more, Germany is the EU’s largest economy, which means that the EU as a whole will feel the effects of any German economic downturn.
Undoing Europe’s Dependence on Russian Natural Gas
The EU has made a goal of buying two-thirds less Russian natural gas by the end of the year, and completely ending Russian gas imports by 2027. This is good news, especially as the implementation of this goal would entail the expansion of green energy and improvements in energy efficiency. In the meantime, the German government, as well as the EU, has negotiated deals for natural gas with other countries around the world, including Qatar and the US. Germany has also accelerated the building of costly liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to receive more imports.
Alternative energy sources (besides renewables and coal) have also been investigated, but for various reasons, these attempts have largely been unfruitful. Thanks to a decision made by the previous administration, led by Angela Merkel, Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants are set to be closed by the end of 2022; in the light of the natural gas shortage, the German government has considered extending the lifespan of their nuclear power plants. However, due to the lack of fuel rods and trained staff to run these facilities, as these plans had begun laying off employees and stopped ordering new fuel to prepare for their imminent closure, nuclear plants are at this stage not likely to be reopened.
Warning Signs for Other Countries
Other countries should learn from the German example not to be so reliant on fossil fuels. As the example of Russia has shown, energy can be used as a tool to pressure and hold other countries hostage politically. Saudi Arabia is similar to Russia in that its government has launched attacks against its neighbours, namely Yemen, and tortured and killed political opponents. Yet, unlike the condemnation against Russia, Western governments have been more hesitant to criticise Saudi Arabia – this may be because of Saudi Arabia’s status as an oil exporter.
In 2020, Saudi Arabia exported oil primarily to China, Japan, South Korea, and India and to many developing nations in Africa. Similarly, China also invested in fossil fuels in the region. As the forced 99-year lease of a Sri Lanka port demonstrates, China is not hesitant to exert enormous political pressure through its infrastructure projects. These are just some examples of how fossil fuels can be used as political weapons by energy exporters, potentially impacting a country’s political sovereignty.
As opposed to fossil fuels, which are often shipped over long distances, green energy is generally produced within the confines of the country using said energy. Evidently, the transition to renewable energy would also help countries achieve energy independence.
What Can Be Done?
While the German energy crisis has already been set in motion by decades of poor policy choices, steps can be taken to ensure that there is no repeat of this gas crisis in other countries. Global institutions, such as the UN and the EU, should be encouraging (and providing funding to) countries still reliant on fossil fuels from other states to accelerate their switch to renewable energy. Not only would this help combat the climate emergency, but it would also ensure that energy is not used as a political tool.
Edited by Parsa Alirezaei