Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the United Nations published its latest climate report. It detailed how hotter temperatures are already punishing people around the planet. As in previous reports, it called for urgent action on a “rapidly closing window of opportunity.”
The immediate challenges of the war in Ukraine, and the longer-term problem of climate change, have the world in a bit of a bind. In the long run, human societies cannot afford ever more fossil production. And in the short run? Russia supplies more than a quarter of Europe’s oil and 45 per cent of its natural gas – and our allies need a replacement source for those fossil fuels. Now.
Despite strong growth in renewable power, humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels remains largely unabated. The International Energy Agency last week reported that greenhouse gas emissions from energy hit their highest level ever in 2021 – led by burning more of the dirtiest fuel there is, coal. And unrelenting global demand for oil and gas is clearly reflected in recent steep price increases for both, which began even before the war.
That’s why, after Russia has been hit with a raft of sanctions, Europe continues to buy Russian oil and gas. It hasn’t much choice. There’s nothing to replace it with – yet.
But there are answers, both short term and long term. It’s about Europe shifting to different suppliers of fossil fuels in the coming months, while hastening its plans to go green.
Last week, the European Commission declared, “we simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.” It put forward a plan to slash dependence on Russia gas by two-thirds by the end of 2022, and get off Russian fossil fuels completely “well before 2030.”
This year, buying gas from established exporters such as Qatar and the United States could replace more than a third of Russian gas. New wind and solar power would push the needle past half. Conservation plays a role – dialling down European thermostats by just 1 degree would cut 1/15th of Russian gas imports. It’s an echo of what happened when North America first brought in vehicle fuel efficiency rules in the 1970s: within a decade, the average new car used half as much gas per mile. In the longer term, Europe aims to triple wind and solar power by 2030 – which would be enough to completely replace all Russian gas.
But Europe is in a bind today because of mistakes made years ago. Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power, to be completed this year, was a glaring error and one it needs to reconsider. It replaced some zero-emission nuclear power with coal, half of which comes from Russia; the result is geopolitical stupidity heaped upon environmental calamity. Add in natural gas and in the quest for cheap energy, Europe bound itself tightly to Russia.
Canada – the world’s No. 4 oil producer and No. 5 gas producer – can play a role in changing that story. Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson last week acknowledged that it wouldn’t harm the globe’s climate equation if Europe were to import less natural gas from Russia and more from Canada. The challenge is getting our gas to Europe. In the short term, it’s probably impossible. Unlike the U.S., Canada has zero gas export terminals on the East Coast and a West Coast export terminal isn’t scheduled to open until 2025.
As for oil, there is an offshore Newfoundland project in the works, Bay du Nord, run by Norway’s state-owned Equinor. It received regulatory approval last summer and the federal cabinet is weighing whether to give it the green light. A decision, originally due last December, is now set for April. Climate is the issue. Bay du Nord itself won’t emit much carbon in producing oil, though downstream consumers burning refined gasoline will – but as Mr. Wilkinson said of Canadian gas, the atmosphere doesn’t take note whether oil is Canadian or Russian.
Bay du Nord would deliver 200,000 barrels a day – but it can’t help in the short term. Equinor says 2028 is the earliest oil can flow. Still, it is a project cabinet should approve. Better that more of the world’s oil is Canadian rather than Russian (or Saudi or Venezuelan or Iranian).
In the years to come, fossil fuels must play an ever smaller role in the world’s energy mix. But among the world’s producers, a Canada that caps oil and gas emissions and imposes the greenest rules on the industry should be unafraid to present itself as the ideal supplier.
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