Europe has seen a recent acceleration of transition to renewable energy sources, with the the focus on the environmental benefits of the move away from fossil fuels. But without additional context, this has meant that until recently, lack of economic incentives and individual resources available to make the change, resistance from major industries and apathy among large sections of the population has meant that the transition has been slow.
However, one reason for which a transition to green energy and the adoption of environmental best practices should be promoted has consistently been overlooked, that of improving Europe’s collective security by moving towards an inter-European green energy production model rather than depending on imported or dwindling European fossil fuels. Aside from reduced trade deficits with potentially hostile states, the reduced incentive to participate in resource-based conflict could play well in reducing European involvement in conflict zones that make it the target for terrorist activity. This may not be initially obvious, and traditionally the rhetoric surrounding the issue has been that resources devoted to a green transition come at a cost to security-minded policies. However, a closer look at how different forms of security tie back to green policies or their absence reveals the need to accelerate the energy transition and adopt environmentally sound practices in several key areas – making green politics a means to achieve greater security for Europe rather than a distraction from said objective.
For this first point, it’s worth giving an update on the current situation. As per the latest statistics released by the Commission (in an April report using statistics from 2015 with the 2005 scores for comparison), roughly 16% of the EU’s final energy consumption comes from renewable sources, and 53% of the energy consumed is imported. The energy dependency rate (i.e. the rate at which the EU is dependent on imports to generate energy using given resources) for the resources required in energy production tends to be high, with nearly 90% of the oil required for production being imported, roughly 70% of the natural gas used is imported, and solid fuel import dependency stands at just over 40%. Unsurprisingly the largest single supplier of solid fuels, natural gas and oil is Russia, with shares of between 25% and one-third of the total supply in all three categories.
Consequently, this has meant that attempting to force Russia’s hand on issues such as Ukraine, or the continued pressure on Georgia, which aspires to EU membership, has not been effective as oil is noticeably absent from the items put under sanctions by the Union (however, certain oil exploration and extraction technologies are under sanctions). Add to this, the variety of partners is low, as for most natural resources only a handful of nations provide the majority of the EU’s required resources for energy production (Russia, Norway, Algeria, Canada and South Africa appear frequently). This means that by targeting these supplies, the EU’s access to energy can be disrupted by the supplier or by other state or non-state actors wishing to destabilise Europe’s energy supply, with associated knock-on economic effects such as price rises across the economy or fuel shortages.
In political terms, the increasing use of renewable energy as well as alternatives to petroleum-based products reduces the incentives for Europe’s involvement in conflict in oil-producing regions or maintaining extensive ties with and resource dependence on oil and gas-based authoritarian governments. This offers not only geopolitical leverage for its models of governance and trade, but also exposing it to fewer risks of terrorist activity thanks to a reduced exposure to resource-based conflict in sensitive areas that can mark it as a target. And thanks to oil no longer being sought after enough to finance and encourage terrorist activity. For example, a large part of Islamic State’s initial success in 2014 is thought to have come from its ability to raise revenue by selling oil from captured oil fields in Iraq and Syria, making oil prices spike among fears for the oil supply elsewhere. With ongoing territorial losses and consistently low oil prices due to increasing competition among producers for market share, this is no longer an effective strategy. Needless to say, oil has many uses beyond energy and therefore will not disappear entirely as a key resource. However, given the extent to which oil can affect the global economy and is arguably one of the most effective non-lethal bargaining chips in any negotiation, moving to reduce dependency on oil where possible is desirable.
However, the security of the Union’s energy supply as a foundation for greater political security is but one aspect of security that the energy transition can address. The positive knock-on effects of the energy transition and environmental best practices on other areas of security (or the negative effects of delayed or nonexistent action) are worth examining.
Climate change, climate refugees, climate conflicts?
Among these, one that strikes me as particularly relevant is the issue of climate change as a major destabilising force in geopolitics in and of itself. As the refugee flows of two years ago (that to a degree continue to this day) seem to reflect, increasing numbers of people are being forced to leave their homes as the changing weather patterns disrupt or even permanently change traditional weather cycles, destroying food supplies and making certain areas of the planet unlivable with extreme weather patterns becoming increasingly normal (the current drought in the horn of Africa, while exacerbated by continued conflict, is a notable example, with millions facing disease and famine). In fact, increasingly arid conditions in the Middle East are considered part of the the reason why millions abandoned their lands and livelihoods and moved to cities, competing for scarce jobs in squalid living conditions, and partly fuelled the social unrest that led to the ongoing instability and conflict in the region.
In addition to this, increasing water scarcity in Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions increases the prospect of water-based conflict, and with it more instability and loss of life. Without concerted action to reduce emissions, and adapt sustainable living practices to a larger scale, these extreme climate events and loss of liveable land will only worsen, and exacerbate the phenomenon of climate refugees, increasing the strain on specific countries and stoking tensions among populations as the recent rise in far-right parties in Europe has shown. The EU does not bear full responsibility for all these negative effects of climate change, but as a major polluter, and an economic bloc with access to the necessary technology and funding, aggressive action on climate change is a strategic priority as well as an ethical duty. Additionally, it is an opportunity for global leadership on the issue after Trump’s abandonment of the Paris agreement, and one that can work its way into aid and development to a far greater extent than at present.
Somali refugees flee flooding in Dadaab, Kenya. pic courtesy of UNHCR
The second aspect of security which this leads us to is the need for an energy transition and environmental safeguards in order to better guarantee food security. While energy production and food security might not seem immediately related, they are in fact closely related. In purely economic terms, some of the EU’s member states have prevented the energy transition from accelerating by providing generous subsidies to national fossil fuel industries, including coal. This has not only diverted resources from potential improvements in renewable and environmental practices, led to sustained levels of high emissions and a lack of incentives to green the energy supply, it has downplayed poor or nonexistent waste disposal strategies in place for these industries’ waste products, as well as waste products in general, contributing to the contamination of several areas in Europe which in turn has caused a sharp loss in biodiversity and long-term ecosystem damage.
I am currently interning with an Alpine organisation whose research and that of associated organisations backs up these assertions, showing that popular mountain resorts associated with clean air and sustainable practices are displaying serious air pollution and loss of biodiversity partly as a result of maintaining high-emissions high-waste industrial and commercial practices (such statistics can be found in the respective national or regional environment agency reports, I cannot disclose information on these areas at present). As a result, land suitable for agriculture or habitation as well as marine fishing areas and water supplies have also been contaminated. While this trend is not yet at critical levels (although the Mediterranean and Black Sea display alarming trends that left untreated could have dire consequences), preventing the situation from worsening by focusing on low-to-zero-emissions energy generation and better, more contained waste disposal (and maximising the use of waste products where possible) will be key to avoiding massive losses of biodiversity and production capability which characterise food insecurity, and the ensuing social unrest this can cause.
As if this scenario were not worrying enough, ongoing climate change could easily render certain areas of Europe uninhabitable and unfit for food production, and some of the warning signs are already present. The heatwave over Southern Europe this summer caused billions of Euros in crop losses in Italy alone, saw areas of Italy, Spain and Southern Europe dealing with drought, and record temperatures in large parts of the continent that if repeated over time could cause heavy casualties.
Greener, safer, stronger: all together now!
The good news however, is that not only are the renewable and sustainability trends in Europe gradually pointing in the right direction, but that the technology is there, it is improving and increasingly available. The great change is the ability for individuals to contribute to this collective energy security, with several nations offering programmes for households to transition to renewable energy. Solar panels are easily available and can be mounted on household surfaces to save space, while wind turbines can be installed without requiring large traditional energy generation structures and loss of virgin land.
An electric car charging station in Dublin
A more recent but equally promising development is the increased electrification of car fleets for both pubic and private use, thanks to the increased battery life of such cars and the expansion of infrastructure required to service such vehicles. Furthermore, the small, but increasing tendency to reconvert unused urban land, and the increased use of rooftop gardens as urban agriculture projects offers the ability for at least a part of the necessary food supply to come directly from within cities. Furthermore, while increased population density and resulting build-up of high-rise dwellings in urban areas may be unsightly, city living makes for more efficient use of energy resources than rural or small-town living requiring high energy per capita expenditure (due larger living spaces that require heating, and often longer distances required to reach key services), and can allow for biodiversity to return to certain rural areas with decreasing human activity, which in turn can allow the ecosystem to regenerate for later use.
To summarise, the energy transition in Europe is essential for the realisation of Europe’s geopolitical, social and food security and requires immediate action. While the process has begun accelerating, much more remains to be done, and perhaps framing renewable energies as a fundamental part of our progress towards greater security rather than simply a means to score ecological points could be key to adopting a more proactive and ambitious energy transition and greater efforts to maintain environmental sustainability. Like ecology and the environment itself, renewable energy’s implications go much further than the “energy” in its name suggests, and a strong Europe will ultimately be built on the strength of this sector and not just those of its economies and its military capabilities.