5 min read

The Energy Crisis in Europe and Why It Sucks

It doesn't just suck for Europe.

Sorry for missing a week. COVID finally struck our household. We're okay, but it's nothing to sneeze at. (Though this variant makes you sneeze a lot.)

In case you've been living under a rock, or without power or internet access, which seems a more and more likely thing for everyone these days, here's a brief recap of why there is an energy crisis in Europe: For about two decades, European leaders have been trying to ween the continent off fossil fuels. In doing so, they cut back on their own production and relied on sources from other nations–a major source being, as you know, Russia. Prices have spiked for the continent the last couple of years, but this winter promises to be even worse because of the war in Ukraine. With much of the world levying sanctions against Russia, Russia has in turn pinched their supply of natural gas to Europe. While this article looks down its nose at the impracticality of Europe focusing on renewables, it is a decent primer on the situation. We could do a deep dive on this alone, actually, because it's kind of the W/I bread and butter: we need to get off fossil fuels but we simply consume too much to continue our way of life without them. That's where Europe was at before the war–now it's simply become much more dire.

Without Russian natural gas (or without most of it, to be accurate), European energy costs are skyrocketing. In the UK, citizens are protesting the jump in prices by burning their utility bills. The increase is double what was seen last year, with an expected rise now from £1,971 now capped at £2,500. In addition to paying more, much of Europe will come under austerity measures, with some nations ordering government buildings and businesses to limit air conditioning and after-hours lighting. Governments are doing what they can to dull the blows to regular citizens, but as evidenced by the protests in Britain, it's not going to be completely effective. But with the imminent approach of winter, there is the potential for more than just austerity and higher bills: active power rationing and blackouts are possible, which Americans know from experience can prove fatal.

These aren't the only reasons why the crisis sucks, though. Because this is 2022 on planet Earth, things are going to get worse, and more complicated.

Who Can Blame 'Em?

Part of the mitigation strategy to the energy crisis is for factories to close in order to save the fuel it would cost to run their operation and manufacture whatever products–what do they make overseas? Stroopwafels?–which is an understandable but unfortunate step. And while there are a lot of government programs softening this crisis, many small businesses, and others that are energy-intensive, are forced to make difficult decisions. At a time when the world is rather precariously perched on the rim of a recession, any more stagnation is liable to send us tumbling, and that is a real possibility this winter. That stagnation can pretty obviously reach overseas, to us, and while our energy costs may not exactly be spiking, we've talked about how shortages globally can mean problems locally.

In addition to the the potential recession and the inherent humanitarian issues associated with this energy crisis, there is the other arm of the Europeans strategy for mitigation: ramp up fossil fuel production. Britain just lifted a ban on fracking; there is mounting pressure for additional fossil fuel infrastructure; and coal plants are being brought back online. You can hardly blame folks for wanting to stay warm with the lights on, but this is the way the world ends. And as aggravating as Foreign Policy's tack was on Europe's try for green energy, it does reveal the practical realities we live in pre-collapse: we are simply without choices. If you lean renewable at this stage, it's quite easy to become destabilized; if you don't bother, you're speeding us toward a cliff.

Sabotaging Our Attempt at Self-Sabotage

The probable sabotage of three pipelines in the Nord Stream system of natural gas infrastructure has set off a flurry of bullshit, not the least of which comes from the American rightwing media-sphere:

Now, I love a good blown up pipeline as much as the next leftist, but there's a time and a place for it, and the middle of the ocean probably ain't it. This supposed attack has created, potentially, the single largest methane release in documented history. Not great. The pipelines, as you might be wondering, weren't in active transmission of fuel, though there was some gas still present–hence the leaked methane. Russia has accused the US of blowing up the pipelines to increase the price of our own natural gas, while the western world tends to blame Russia for doing so in order to further stub Europe's toe, and perhaps also gin up support for their Nord Stream 2 plan. Nord Stream 2, as with all fossil fuel infrastructure, simply guarantees worse money follows bad–meaning that if nations invest in this pipeline, they will request more fuel to ensure they get their money's worth, making Russia richer and the world hotter.

It's Not a Wheel, It's an Ouroboros

You may notice, as we hurtle toward +1.5° C, that all roads lead to and away from a climate impact. Part of the reason why Europe is experiencing an energy crisis is because of climate change. A record-breaking heatwave this summer coupled with drought and wildfire put a serious strain on energy resources, in some cases surging demand while in others choking supply. This is not a one-off coincidence. We will see more and more of this interconnected, cascading failure as climate change continues to intensify and as it becomes clearer just how tenuous our grip is on the maintenance of the high-carbon status quo. An old-timer you know may have at some point in your life told you that if you're in a hole, quit digging, which is apt here but perhaps not as evocative as necessary. I would suggest the following: if you're on fire, quit pouring gasoline. But the problem is that the firetruck can't get down your street without fuel, so we keep pouring.

I won't do the war in Ukraine such a disservice as attempting to summarize it or glom it into this thesis, though it very much is a part of its world. We (though not really we) have chosen to live in a self-destructive manner. Just as we might build the tools that allow us to break this cycle, we find ourselves far enough down the path that it may be too late. But building is not the only way out–it's just the way we're used to. Bill Gates recently said that degrowth won't solve climate change, but the man selling you hammers is always going to suggest your problem is a nail. Fuck him. We're staring at the end results of the other option, and it's looking darker by the day.