The record spike in energy prices could hardly have come at a worse time for Europe’s ambitious new climate plan, with politicians just beginning to talk about how they’re going to implement the world’s most sweeping emissions-cutting strategy.
The energy crisis is threatening double-digit increases in consumer electricity bills months before the winter freeze and it’s also squeezing industrial giants. As European governments scrambled to blunt the impact on consumers -- Greece promised subsidies on power bills, for example --- threats of blackouts in the U.K. this past week were a vivid reminder of the fragility of energy supplies.
For the European Union, which is proposing to ban new fossil-fueled cars by 2035 and impose new costs on dirty home heating, the steep costs of such an ambitious plan will be an even tougher sell to voters already reeling from hikes in utility bills.
“Of course the current level of energy prices has the potential to make discussions on the climate package more complex,” said Peter Vis, a senior adviser at the Rud Pedersen Public Affairs consultancy and a former political aide to the EU’s first climate commissioner. “But to weaken the package due to the energy crunch today would detract from the longer-term solution of reducing Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels without addressing the cause of the gas supply squeeze.”
Natural gas and power prices are surging to all-time highs in the 27-nation region, as the bloc’s economies rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic. The surge in demand comes amid limited gas imports from Norway and Russia, with some countries accusing Moscow of manipulating supplies. At the same time, the EU strategy to accelerate emissions cuts in every sector from transport to manufacturing and agriculture boosted demand for carbon permits, with prices more than doubling over the past two years to new records.
The EU wants to lead the global fight against climate change, setting an example for other major emitters such as the U.S. and China. Its overarching goal in the Green Deal strategy is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
The green package unveiled in July aims to align the economy with a 2030 stricter binding goal of reducing emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels. The laws need to be approved by the European Parliament and member states in the Council of the EU, with each institution entitled to amending the plan, in a process likely to take around two years.
But for Europe’s lower-income countries -- as well for the continent’s energy-intensive industries -- the pain of any transition will be significant, and the EU will be under pressure to help cushion the blow from the current price jump.
As the political talks get underway, governments from Madrid to Amsterdam are taking steps to alleviate the immediate impact of the energy crisis and prevent backlash against carbon-cutting policies. Measures to reduce emissions “may not stand a sustained period of abusive electricity prices,” Spain told the EU in a letter on Sept. 20, recalling the yellow vests protests that shook France two years ago.
The gas crisis already hijacked this week’s meeting of energy ministers, called to discuss draft laws to increase the share of renewables and boost energy savings. While the EU has limited powers in the area of energy policy, which largely remains in the hands of member states, the European Commission pledged to publish in the coming weeks guidelines on what short-term tools nations can use in line with the bloc’s law. Options include reducing value added tax and excise on energy.
In Greece, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis earlier pledged to grant a power subsidy in the fourth quarter for all households aimed at covering most of the expected price spike in power bills. He also announced a reduction of sales tax until June 2022 for coffee, transport, non-alcoholic drinks, cinemas, gyms, dance schools and tourism packages.
The Netherlands amended the country’s budget to include 500 million euros ($586 million) to lower energy costs for companies and households. Spain will slap a windfall tax on power utilities and cap consumers’ energy bills, a move that critics said could limit investment in renewables.
“That is not sustainable,” Ignacio Galan, the chief executive officer of Spanish power company Iberdrola SA, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “That puts at risk the whole energy transition.”
But European governments are limited in what they can do to tackle the power crunch -- without making their climate goals even harder to reach.
“It feels unlikely that politicians will reverse track and go back to coal generation or make changes to the approach to carbon,” said John Musk, an analyst at RBC Europe Ltd. “It is hard to see what measures can be adopted to alleviate near term supply-demand constraints on gas and power. There are likely be a couple of difficult years to navigate in terms of consumer prices and there may have to be some measures to help consumers here and there.”
The biggest industrial energy users are particularly exposed to the immediate impact of the price spike. Zinc producer Nyrstar NV said on Thursday it is cutting output at a major Dutch plant during peak times of day. For regional aluminum producers, electricity costs could equate to about 80% of the commodity’s overall price, the metals industry association Eurometaux said in a letter to the EU energy chief Kadri Simson, urging further support for the sector.
“These rising electricity prices have already led to curtailments and could lead to further relocation of our sector outside Europe if not addressed,” the lobby said. “More broadly, we’re also concerned that if electricity remains too expensive, it will disincentivise industrial electrification as a decarbonisation route, undermining the EU’s Green Deal objectives.”