Europe’s energy supplies were already strained due to war and soaring prices. Today, climate change is pushing them beyond their limits.
The historic heat wave scorching Europe comes as the continent races to find enough natural gas to power its industries and fill storage tanks for the winter. Gas flows have declined as Russia decides to suspend supplies from its neighbours.
Then scorching temperatures sent energy demand skyrocketing as residents tried to stay cool amid extreme heat that sparked wildfires across large swathes of Europe and killed more than 1 900 people in Spain and Portugal.
“Europe is in the middle of a perfect energy storm,” said Simone Tagliapietra, senior researcher at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank.
A severe drought has reduced hydropower generation in Italy, while high river temperatures have complicated efforts to cool nuclear reactors in France, forcing further power cuts. Low river levels have also limited coal shipments to power plants in Germany as it seeks to support lower gas flows.
The European Commission yesterday proposed that its 27 member states ration natural gas supplies to avoid shortages that could leave homes unheated this winter. The plan, if approved, would call on every EU country to cut its gas consumption by 15% until spring.
In addition to driving up demand and prices, the deadly heat wave is putting pressure on transmission lines, cables and generators, according to a memo from Rystad Energy. It also forces major trade-offs between water use for agriculture or power generation.
These pressures will only increase as global warming makes heat waves more frequent and intense. This is a challenge that countries are facing globally, but which is worsening more rapidly in Europe.
According to a recent study, the frequency of heat waves in Western Europe is increasing about three times faster than elsewhere in mid-latitudes. And they escalate about four times faster.
The current catastrophe in Europe has been caused in large part by a phenomenon known as the “low cutoff” – when a swirling low-pressure system separates from the rest of the jet stream and separates from itself. These events can cause weather systems, such as heat waves, to persist in place.
It’s the latest in a series of extreme heat waves over the past few decades. A 2015 study found that half of the 10 most extreme heat waves in Europe since 1950 have occurred in this century – and that’s not even taking the past seven years into account.
A 2003 heatwave linked to tens of thousands of deaths across Europe remains one of the most shocking events in recent history. Yet it has been challenged by record-breaking heat waves in four of the past five years. Last summer was the hottest season on record in Europe, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.
Studies suggest that extreme heat will only get worse as man-made emissions increase.
In Britain, where temperatures shattered the country’s all-time heat record and surpassed an all-time high of 104 degrees this week, such jaw-dropping events could become increasingly likely in the decades to come.
Similar increases in extreme heat are likely across the rest of Europe. A 2015 study found that even under a mild to moderate climate change scenario, summers as hot as 2003 will become common by the 2040s.
As temperatures rise across Europe, energy demand is also expected to change.
Today, most of Europe experiences its highest demand for electricity in winter. But a 2017 study, covering 35 countries in the region, found that peak demand will shift to the summer months in more than half of them under a severe climate change scenario, although relatively unlikely.
In a more moderate scenario, this suggests that total annual consumption across Europe would not change much, but would increase in southern Europe while decreasing in the north.
This means that places like Spain and Portugal could see their energy demand increase, while places like Norway and Sweden would see a drop.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions about the North-South divide in Europe.
This means that summer, in particular, could start to become a stressful season for Europe’s energy infrastructure, especially during increasingly frequent episodes of extreme heat.
A commitment to cut?
Reducing the use of fossil fuels and their emissions is one way to avoid dangerous warming. Europe enshrined this commitment in law last year by setting a target to cut emissions by 55% by 2030.
But as energy supplies have tightened, European leaders have gone in search of more fossil fuels that are exacerbating heat waves and other disasters hitting the continent this week. These emissions also affect other nations, with the heaviest burden often falling on the poorest people.
It’s a paradox highlighted earlier this year in India, where an unusually early and prolonged heat wave forced the country to burn more coal to keep people cool (climate wireJune 2).
EU leaders say increasing the use of coal and liquefied natural gas in the near term will help break their dependence on fossil fuels from Russia and speed up Europe’s transition to clean energy.
In May, they presented a plan to end Russian oil and gas imports by sourcing elsewhere. They also proposed to increase energy efficiency and significantly increase renewable energy capacity. The plan called for filling the gas storage facilities to 80% capacity by November.
But Russia has limited gas flows to about a third of what they were this time last year.
The Russian state-owned energy giant yesterday resumed gas flows via a mainline pipeline to Germany after maintenance. That has allayed some fears of a complete shutdown, but Europe is still bracing for further restrictions on imports if Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to weaponize natural gas, as EU officials have accused him of. do it. Further cuts would limit member states’ ability to fill EU storage facilities beyond the 65% level they currently stand at, officials said.
The gas rationing proposal put forward by the European Commission yesterday would reduce gas consumption by 15% from August to allow member states to store fuel for the winter and meet mandatory storage quotas.
The plan urges member states to promote energy efficiency measures, such as reducing heating and air conditioning in public buildings, and includes an emergency measure that would impose mandatory gas cuts on member states if the supply reaches critical levels or peaks in demand. It also gives a nod to efforts to increase gas purchases out of Russia.
“Where possible, priority should be given to switching to renewable energy or cleaner, less carbon-intensive or polluting options,” said a press release on the proposal. “However, switching to coal, oil or nuclear may be necessary as a temporary measure, as long as it avoids long-term carbon lock-in.”
These exceptions have raised questions about leaders’ commitment to addressing the drivers of climate change.
German authorities have responded to lower gas flows by dusting off about 16 retired coal-fired power plants to provide reserve power.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has visited Egypt and Azerbaijan in recent days to sign gas supply agreements. And European lawmakers earlier this month approved a proposal to label gas as a sustainable investment, potentially allowing billions of dollars in additional funding to flow to natural gas-fired power plants (climate wireJuly 7).
It has also sparked frustration and anger among leaders in developing countries who say rich countries are not delivering on the promises they made at climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Last year in Glasgow some developing countries were vilified for emphasizing their national situation against some of the desired outcomes in the Glasgow Climate Pact,” said Barbara Creecy, South African Minister environment, at a climate summit in Berlin on Monday.
“Yet just over six months after Glasgow, we are seeing a return of many developed countries to coal in response to their negative national circumstances,” she added.
Yet energy experts say Europe is headed in the right direction overall and a temporary setback is unlikely to derail that trajectory as long as it continues to advance plans to green the economy. .
“Right now, it’s obvious to everyone that we need to double down on energy efficiency, renewables, clean hydrogen,” said Anne-Sophie Corbeau, global fellow at the University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. of Columbia. “It’s always the kind of stuff that politicians talk about but really need to put in place.”