The case for green strategic autonomy

The EU should do far more to reduce its dependence on imports of energy and critical raw materials. This would help the union preserve its independence in an increasingly dangerous world

Image by Pixabay

It is already more than seven months since the European Commission launched Fit for 55, setting out its long-term climate and energy policies. This period has been marked by excessive polarisation of the political debate in Europe over future energy prices. Yet Russia’s war on Ukraine underlines the price of political inaction.

Europe’s foreign and security policy choices vis-à-vis Russia are constrained by its energy dependency. And Russia is not the only autocratic regime that the European Union depends on for critical supplies. It is long past time that the EU began to establish its green strategic autonomy as the foundation of peace and security on the continent.

The latest delays are nothing new. Europe currently faces a severe security threat after decades of failing to fundamentally reform its energy sector and heavy industries, or to substantially reduce its dependence on foreign energy. In fact, Europe’s energy dependency – or reliance on imports to meet its energy needs – has increased by 5 percentage points since 2000, reaching 61 per cent in 2019. EU member states’ dependency rate ranges from more than 90 per cent in Malta, Luxembourg, and Cyprus to 5 per cent in Estonia.

This dependency is made worse by the concentration of supplies from just a few countries, several of which are governed by authoritarians or are highly unstable. In 2019 three authoritarian countries accounted for 42 per cent of the EU’s imports of crude oil (27 per cent from Russia, 8 per cent from Saudi Arabia, and 7 per cent from Kazakhstan), while Russia accounted for almost half of its imports of solid fuel (mostly coal).

The big challenge is in preparing for next winter without Russian supplies of coal, gas, and oil

European governments are right to be concerned about how severe sanctions on Russia will affect European households, which are already reeling from a huge rise in energy prices in recent months. While current estimates suggest that the EU’s reserves of fossil gas are sufficient to see households through the next few months without major disruptions, the big challenge is in preparing for next winter without Russian supplies of coal, gas, and oil.

Today, almost 50 per cent of all buildings in the EU are equipped with boilers. Fifty-eight per cent of these boilers are fired by gas. One in three households across the continent use gas burners. Accordingly, in the short term, the EU’s priority should be to urgently reduce this household dependence on all fossil gas, not just that from Russia. European governments will search for alternative sources of fossil gas – be it from Azerbaijan, Turkey, or Qatar – but this will only be a temporary measure that perpetuates the EU’s energy dependency. More broadly, the EU will also have to reconsider the role of gas as a transition fuel in its energy decarbonisation pathway scenarios to 2050, which will have major implications on industry.

The EU should focus on the demand side, by accelerating the electrification of European household heating systems and building renovations such as insulation. The Fit for 55 package already provides the tools to do this – it is up to EU leaders to use them now rather than wait until 2025.

The EU should also address the potential economic scarcity of many materials and resources (minerals, rare earth, sand, wood, etc..) that our economy depends on. Such scarcity is often linked to wars across the world – and, due to rising demand, may become the biggest driver of conflict in the decades to come. Globally, the extraction and use of primary materials is projected to rise from 79 gigatonnes today to 167 gigatonnes in 2060.

The EU relies on external sources for most of its industrial and everyday consumption of food, gasoline, and electronic products. For instance, the EU is dependent on imports for most mineral fertilisers used in food production, which could be disrupted by conflict. Fifty per cent of EU nitrogen-based fertiliser imports come from Russia. The EU imports most of its phosphate- and potassium-based fertiliser from Russia, Belarus, and Morocco. And the union is also dependent on imports – particularly those from China – for many of the raw materials required by its defence sector.

To begin to address these vulnerabilities, EU leaders should use economic recovery plans, cohesion policy, and the Fit for 55 package to reduce households’ dependency on fossil gas for cooking and heating. This effectively means the union needs an ambitious strategy for replacing all EU gas boilers and stoves in the next two years with renewably sourced ones, such as efficient solar-thermal or hybrid heat pumps. In line with this effort, the EU should also:

  • Immediately launch acommunication campaign targeting EU citizens and businesses to reduce their energy consumption in solidarity with Ukraine.
  • Develop a common energy security policy based on the concept of green strategic autonomy. All energy and critical raw material sources in the EU should be sustainable and compatible with its strategic autonomy. This policy should include a mandatory target to reduce the union’s dependency on foreign sources of energy and materials, as well as ambitious energy efficiency measures.
  • Engage in constructive dialogue with key trading partners on collaborative approaches to sharing global supplies of critical materials
  • Accelerate the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan to reduce demand for, and wastage of, these materials.
  • Reduce the risk of resource-related conflicts by preventing shocks to supplies of food and materials critical to housing, mobility, and the energy sector. This will require pooled funds to promote the development of technologies that are efficient in their use of both materials and energy.
  • Ensure that EU food production reduces its reliance on inputs from unstable countries and becomes more resilient to economic shocks and climate change. This will require the EU to pay heed to the environmental and climate effects of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the EU should not further delay its efforts to address all these issues. It is time to strengthen the EU’s green strategic autonomy in energy and critical raw materials.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.