The future of energy in Europe between COP27 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: an interview with Suzana Carp

20 February 2023 /

8 min

This year (2022) has represented an important upheaval in energy matters in Europe, in terms of energy (in)dependence, transition to renewables, supplies and prices, both due to the increasingly worrying climate crisis and following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The European Union (EU) has proved to be still too dependent on other countries, such as Russia, when it comes to energy supplies and still too reliant on gas rather than on renewable energy sources.

We had the chance to discuss these topics with Suzana Carp, a European Climate and Energy Policy Specialist and Deputy Executive Director at CleanTech for Europe. In order to give some background, Suzana Carp holds two master’s degrees: one in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and the second one in EU Studies with a specialisation on climate and energy policies from the College of Europe in Natolin, but her passion for climate advocacy dates to her high school years, when she had the opportunity to study both politics and environmental matters. This is the reason why she felt a very strong calling during the Paris Agreement times to redirect her career towards climate policy. In fact, she has been focusing on finding ways to implement the Paris Agreement into European legislation since then, and she is now contributing to foster innovation in clean technology at CleanTech for Europe. Alongside her professional world, she dedicates herself to activism and campaigning on EU citizenship and political rights.

Do you consider the COP27 a success for the global transition towards renewable energy and why?

“I don’t necessarily think COP27 is a failure per se, in the grand scope of these agreements, because I’ve been at many cops where there was the idea that the conference is a failure, such as COP25 before the pandemic. And we’ve had COPs that were absolute failures in the past like the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, where everyone thought that we would never get a climate agreement. So, in the grand scheme of things, I just think this is an overall weak COP. It didn’t deliver the commitments the world was looking for, for loss and damage. 

There was a point to have the COP in North Africa, which was to give a voice to the countries on the continent. And now we see that actually it’s still an issue of resources. For example, the negotiations are prolonging and not all the delegations can afford to stay longer, and the financing for loss and damage is not there yet. So, in a sense, I feel like this COP perpetuates previous failures from other COPs. 

But what I see quite interesting is that strong adaptation is really coming and that’s because we’re starting to live in a climate change world increasingly so. Obviously, Europe is experiencing it, but let’s say Europe is more resilient to it at the moment. But the same cannot be said for other parts of the world, and the droughts in Pakistan are an example, that terrible climate events do exacerbate vulnerability of communities around the world.

So, following a year like this, when the climate crisis has become extremely visible, when newspapers around the world were covering it, when it’s clear that not even a war will deter Europe from pursuing what is actually pretty much a growth and a survival agenda, you would have thought that COP could have been more of a success story, that is true.”

Talking about the war and its implications: in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the weaponisation of energy against Europe, such as the complete stop of natural gas deliveries via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, what sort of alternative energy partnerships has the EU explored to ensure improved energy independence?

“If you start looking into when the Energy Union was first introduced in European Parliament reports, you’ll see that mostly Central and East European member states were already asking for energy independence, highlighting the vulnerability of being so reliant on Russia. But if we look at what happened over the past ten or twenty years, the EU has only increased its dependency on Russia. So there seems to have been a disconnect between what was very clear to some member states and what it has been done.

But I think Russia has made it quite clear, because they’ve also stopped gas in the past: for them, energy is connected to strategic military goals. So, the sad reality that this war has brought to us is not just that we’ve been perhaps too lenient on the European side, but also that we’ve taken too long to actually implement what we said was needed.

The lesson learned is that we can’t afford the same with the climate crisis. So, we can’t afford to have all these documents that say that we want to mitigate the climate crisis and then they don’t materialise as when we wanted to achieve our energy independence. So we need to start moving really fast. 

You have probably followed that the EU has looked into gas negotiations with the United States (US). And again, there have been new contracts signed on gas, but what is lacking is evidence that there’s production capacity on the US side. First, I’m not very confident that the agreements that we’ve had with other partners around the world will necessarily all materialise in the way we think they will, because there we’re not sure there’s production capacity. Secondly, looking for gas as a replacement for gas doesn’t actually mitigate the fact that gas is unsustainable. So I think it’s a fundamental strategic mistake to replace a long term dependency on gas with another long term dependency on gas when it’s not compatible with our climate goals.

So it’s much quicker now, and you’ll see Council agreements on permitting of renewables. But we could have moved much faster than we did. We’ve only now in November agreed to fast forward permitting of renewables, but we could have actually done it already in March. And we could have used the time from March to now to actually do a profound renovation and retrofitting of houses and really focus on finding alternative solutions for heating. But instead, we focused on getting a lot of gas, most of which is actually intended for industrial facilities. Now, I’m not saying industrial facilities in Europe are not important. All I’m saying is this crisis could have been handled with a citizens’ focused agenda, which would’ve then yielded other kinds of energy solutions as priorities. 

On the renewables front, sure we have solar and wind, but we also have innovative renewables that still need to develop, which are the future of Europe’s energy independence, for example ocean energy or geothermal floating offshore wind. And there wasn’t such a strong focus on that. It was just another focus on gas, and of course the electricity prices have gone up because unfortunately our electricity market is connected to the gas market. Actually, renewables have a very small marginal cost, but the electricity market operates on a marginal pricing basis. So it applies the cost of gas all across the energy producers and this has had horrible repercussions around Europe. This means many small companies have gone bankrupt and the energy bills have gone huge.”

And talking about moving away from gas, how do you assess the future of nuclear energy in Europe? Also considering that many European countries still purchase their uranium from Russia and the German phase-out of nuclear power.

“Well yes, nuclear energy is carbon free, which is partly why you see it featuring in many of the net zero scenarios. Having said that, while renewables are becoming so cheap and we see such a revolution in their cost, nuclear energy remains extremely expensive. We need an energy transition for sure, but we also want to take a cheaper route generally. So I think nuclear will have to prove its economic benefits when compared with alternatives. 

And you’re absolutely right, the uranium comes from Russia and very few people actually say that, so when we’re talking about securing our energy independence, until we find a different provider or until we can think of different ways of producing nuclear that requires much less raw material, the problem is not solved. And indeed, there’s some investments in innovative or new forms of nuclear, but we’re not there yet. So as far as I see it, nuclear energy can play its role in a carbon-free world, but we’re not there yet. 

And let’s not forget the nuclear outages of this summer in Europe and the issues with water in France, which raise a huge question about the future of nuclear in a world that will be a climate change heated world where we will have less water and we’ll have to prioritise that water for drinking or for agriculture or, let’s not forget, for green hydrogen, as electrolysis requires water. All of a sudden, we’re in a situation where we need to think that our world won’t be the same as it is now and it’s not actually clear now how this will impact on nuclear and how it will go ahead.”

Europe’s strength to support the transition

Suzana Carp believes that the topic of energy independence and innovation on renewable energy sources is bound to become more and more interesting in the coming months and years, and that we will all end up interacting professionally with it to some extent. This is why she encourages everyone to follow climate discussion, whether it’s the politics of it or the technical aspects of it.

She considers that entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged more in Europe and the way to make it happen is recognising our diversity as our strength, because the diverse skills, knowledge and experiences allow us to support the transition to a net zero world. And the EU needs to succeed because it should tell a positive story and bring others along by sending a clear message to the world. As 2023 will be the European Year of Skills, we will have the opportunity to value the diversity inside our Union and to show how Europe managed to create a framework for skill sets, for jobs, for the future and for inclusion to keep up with societal transformations.

This article was first published in the issue 37 of the magazine

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