WORLD
26/06/2018 7:45 PM AEST

How A Populist Europe In Thrall To Russia Threatens Climate Change Action

RIA Novosti / Reuters
Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin leaves his signature on a gas pipeline in Vladivostok, Russia, September 2011. 

As a growing number of European countries tip toward the far right politically, attempts to curb climate change are coming under pressure. The region’s race to cut planet-warming greenhouse gases is generating friction, and some Members of European Parliament and experts point the finger of blame at Russian big energy interests and populist governments in thrall to them.

This month, a bid to raise the European Union’s supply of renewable energy to 35 percent of the electricity mix by 2030 was stymied by a bloc of EU states led by populist governments in the Visegrad countries ― Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia ― even though it had the support of the European Parliament and European Commission.

The same bloc of countries helped whittle down proposals for a binding 40 percent energy conservation target, despite signs of accelerating climate change from the Antarctic to the African savannah.

“We see a pattern of populist governments clearly opposing ambitious climate and energy regulations, which is in line with the primary Russian economic interest: exporting fossil fuels and nuclear technology,” Benedek Jávor, the vice-chair of the European parliament’s environment committee and a Hungarian Green MEP, told HuffPost.

Russia supplies more than a third of Europe’s gas but this could be reduced to nothing by an ambitious energy saving target, according to analyses by several think tanks and consultancies.

The European Commission itself calculates that every 1 percent of energy savings is accompanied by a 2.6 percent reduction in the gas imports.

While Russia is a signatory to the Paris climate agreement and has not spoken against climate targets, the eastern European populist governments it supports have taken a hard line in EU negotiations.

Hungary, for example, which is becoming an increasingly authoritarian government under far-right leader Viktor Orbán, is a valued advocate for Russian gas infrastructure and is also building a Russian-financed €10 billion ($11.5 billion) nuclear reactor outside Budapest.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK via Getty Images
Greenpeace activists protest opposite the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest in April 2014. After the government signed a treaty with Russia to build two new blocks of a nuclear power plant, the dependence of the country's electric energy production rose to almost 80 percent.

“Hungary has shifted to closer cooperation with Russia than the EU,” Jávor said. There was no evidence that Hungary’s stance was directly aimed at helping Russia export gas to Europe, Javor conceded, but “we can see that they go hand in hand,” he added.

“Any energy efficiency program on an EU scale would decrease gas consumption and have dramatic costs for Russian imports,” the MEP added.

Earlier this month, the Bulgarian parliament voted to resurrect the Soviet-era Belene nuclear plant, mothballed in 2012 because of concerns about its cost, necessity and safety, and under pressure from the United States and Europe to reduce its energy dependence on Russia (which had been slated to build the plant). Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, has expressed interest in the revived plant.

“That nuclear power plant does not have any energy or economic justification whatsoever,” said Julian Popov, a former Bulgarian environment minister. “Not one single energy expert will say it is a good idea. I am not against nuclear power as a technology, but Belene is a disaster case.”

Like Hungary, Bulgaria has resisted ambitious climate targets in Brussels (Neno Dimov, the country’s environment minister, also has alleged neo-Nazi connections and has described global warming as “a hoax”.) The country has used its EU presidency this year to try to replace the EU’s “energy efficiency first” principle with a rule that member states cannot promote energy efficiency projects over gas infrastructure projects.

Far more important than climate concerns in Bulgaria, experts say, is the country’s dream of becoming an entry point for Russian gas supplies piped through Turkey, which is headed by another authoritarian leader.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Bulgarian cabinet minister said that the country’s energy ministry was simply not engaged with environmental concerns.

“Gas infrastructure is very important for us right now,” the official told HuffPost. “We want to become a Balkan gas hub. It is a priority for us. To be frank, the benefits of energy efficiency are not universally understood in the Bulgarian government. It is very difficult to convince the finance ministry.”

Russia’s energy agenda plays to a wider audience than extreme nationalists. Gas and nuclear are both seen as relatively lower carbon options than coal, which could “bridge” the path to a mid-century world powered solely by renewables. However, some climate studies suggest that, where gas is concerned, the bridge could also burn the chances of limiting global warming to no more than a 2 C temperature rise above pre-Industrial levels ― the target the majority of scientists say cannot be exceeded if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Several academic papers have found that investment in gas could crowd out desperately needed funds for renewable energy while providing few emissions-cutting benefits.

Denmark, Portugal and Germany are already achieving 100 percent renewable electricity cover for short periods. And a push by the European Parliament earlier this month for a net zero emissions target by 2050 gained surprising traction, even if the same blocking countries prevented its uptake

But environmentalists’ hopes that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel would stand up for clean energy ambition were dashed when her energy minister, Peter Altmaier, ruled out “unachievable” higher targets for 2030. The German government is struggling to meet its own climate targets for 2020 – and to pacify rising anti-migrant sentiment within its borders, and beyond.

Germany also expects to begin importing Russian gas through a giant pipeline – Nord Stream 2 – in 2019, and this is sparking accusations that EU legislation has been spiked to please Moscow.

Carsten Koall via Getty Images
A worker stands in front of pipes which lie stacked at the Nord Stream 2 facility on Ruegen Island, Germany, in October 2017.

Claude Turmes, Luxembourg’s new energy minister, told HuffPost he believes that Putin is using his contacts with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Merkel in Germany to derail a proposed revision to an EU gas directive, which aims to increase transparency, competition and energy security. 

“We have to take that [Russian threat] extremely seriously,” he added. “We are in a really dangerous moment.”

One European government, though, has apparently bucked the trend of populist indifference to global warming. Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) emerged as the largest party in recent elections and bagged the environmental portfolio in a new coalition government.

As well as arguing for ambitious clean energy targets in the recent Brussels haggle, M5S has launched a review into the vast southern gas pipeline that would take gas from Azerbaijan to Western Europe and so reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. Italy’s new environment minister has described the 1,850-kilometer project as “pointless.”

But much as the review will be welcomed by environmental campaigners, it is also music to the ears of those in the Kremlin, which fears its stranglehold on Europe’s gas market being undermined.

Both M5S and its coalition partner, the far-right League, are close to Russia – with whom the League has signed a cooperation pact – and the new administration is pushing for an end to EU sanctions against Russia.

Russian nuclear interests may also be seeing a revival of fortune in the Czech Republic. The billionaire populist Andrej Babiš, who won recent elections on an anti-migrant platform, is in the process of forming a government with the country’s pro-Moscow Communist Party.

David W Cerny / Reuters
Andrej Babiš waiting to be appointed as Czech prime minister on June 6, 2018.

The country already has two Soviet-era nuclear reactors and “there is a vision that we might build another block of reactors – or new reactors that will be added to Temelín [nuclear power station],” a Czech government minister told HuffPost, adding: “There are rumors that they may be Russian.”

The minister said that energy efficiency was currently low on the priority list for Babiš. “It is not on the agenda but it can come,” the government minister said. “Somebody must find the bravery to try to explain [the benefits] to him because he is not easy to speak to.”

Depleted gas fields may soon speak louder than words. Europe is already the world’s largest importer of fossil fuels, and likely to become ever more so without structural changes.

North Sea gas production is in long-term decline, and gas production in the Netherlands – the EU’s largest domestic supplier – is to be capped and phased out by 2030.

With Norwegian gas production also expected to fall and Algeria facing similar problems, Europe could be dependent on imports for more than 80 percent of its supply by 2025.

In this context, Russia’s defense of its gas export market, which reached record levels in Europe last year, could have “a huge impact” on EU plans for decarbonization, according to Antoine Simon, a policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

“There is no room left in our carbon budget for building new gas pipelines,” he told HuffPost. “They will last for 40 or 50 years ― way past 2050 by when we are supposed to have decarbonized. That is why gas cannot be a bridging fuel. In 1970, we could maybe have talked about that kind of role for it but gas is way too carbon intensive, the fossil fuel era is over, and time is running out.”

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