Europe wants to cut Russian energy. Climate policies can help.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month precipitated an energy crisis that is reverberating around the world. Nowhere are the effects felt more intensely than in the European Union, which relies on Russia for roughly 40 percent of its gas and more than a quarter of its oil.

Russian gas and oil exports

to the E.U. in 2021

Natural gas:

5.6 trillion cubic feet

Oil: 2.3 million

barrels per day

Cubic feet of natural gas have been converted to barrels of oil equivalent.

Russian gas and oil exports

to the E.U. in 2021

Natural gas:

5.6 trillion cubic feet

Oil: 2.3 million

barrels per day

Cubic feet of natural gas have been converted to barrels of oil equivalent.

Russian gas and oil exports to the E.U. in 2021

Oil: 2.3 million

barrels per day

Natural gas:

5.6 trillion cubic feet

Cubic feet of natural gas have been converted to barrels of oil equivalent.

As European leaders scramble to find alternatives to imported Russian energy, the question is whether this moment will mark a turning point in the fight against global warming — or just a change in fossil fuel vendors.

Earlier this month, E.U. officials announced a plan to curb Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of the year. The bloc aims to end its dependence on Russian fossil fuels before the close of the decade by ramping up renewable energy initiatives that were already underway.

This rapid transition faces many economic, social and logistical hurdles — but it is achievable, according to analyses from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel and the European Commission. Here’s how it might work.

Cuts of Russian gas proposed by this coming winter

By this winter, experts say, the E.U. can import more gas from alternative sources and invest in clean-energy infrastructure that can be quickly deployed. Through a combination of energy-efficiency measures and cutbacks in use, the bloc can also reduce its overall energy needs.

Switch to new sources of piped gas

The European Commission estimates that it could secure up to 10 billion cubic meters more of piped natural gas from places like Norway and Azerbaijan. Because gas must be transported through pipelines, and those pipelines take years to design, approve and build, there are not many alternative sources of natural gas that Europe can turn to in the near term.

Increase liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports

Natural gas can be liquefied, which makes it easier to buy and sell on a global market, but the cost of transporting it raises its price. Europe has many LNG terminals, where the fuel is converted back into a gas and pushed into pipelines, but these facilities are unevenly distributed, which limits the continent’s ability to rely on this option.

The European Commission estimates that it could boost near-term LNG flows by up to 50 billion cubic meters. However, the high cost of LNG — which was rising even before Russia invaded Ukraine — means Europe shouldn’t rely on it to fill more than 20 billion cubic meters of its energy needs, according to the IEA.

The Biden administration is working to support Europe’s efforts by crafting a plan to direct liquefied natural gas shipments there, which President Biden and European leaders plan to announce during his trip to Brussels this week.

Plug pipeline leaks

Natural gas infrastructure is notoriously leaky. A 2018 study in the journal Science found that leakage from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain wastes enough gas to power 10 million homes per year.

Plugging these leaks could save Europe up to 2.5 billion cubic meters by the end of this year, the IEA says. And because methane — the primary component of natural gas — is a powerful climate pollutant, preventing seepage would also cut Europe’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Turn down thermostats

One of the most effective measures Europe can take to reduce its Russian gas dependence involves just a tiny change: reducing thermostats by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). This would curb gas demand by about 10 billion cubic meters per year, the IEA estimates. It would also slash Europeans’ gas bills by about 10 percent — helpful in a time when fuel prices are soaring.

Install heat pumps

The E.U.’s 2030 climate agenda, dubbed “Fit for 55” because it seeks to curb emissions by 55 percent below 1990 levels, already calls for widespread installation of heat pumps — which use electricity to warm homes in winter and cool them in summer.

These highly efficient systems use roughly half as much energy as the gas furnaces that currently heat about 76 million European homes, but they are expensive for homeowners to install. The European Commission has announced a plan to double the rate of heat pump installations by this winter, reducing gas use by about 2 billion cubic meters, according to the IEA.

Boost building efficiency

The E.U. plan will also fund renovations and other measures to help make homes more energy-efficient. Accelerating the pace of insulation upgrades, tripling the installation rate of smart thermostats, and adopting other programs aimed at encouraging efficiency at small businesses and in industry could save 2 billion cubic meters of gas this year, the IEA says.

Fast-track renewables

A record number of new solar and wind installations was already planned for 2022. By speeding up other projects and investing roughly 3 billion euros in helping building owners install solar panels on their roofs, the IEA estimates that Europe can bring down gas use by 6 billion cubic meters.

The cost of these clean-energy measures is uncertain, said Giovanni Sgaravatti, a researcher at Bruegel. “But with gas prices at the current level, any subsidy needed to get to target would probably be dwarfed by the respective cost of gas for E.U. citizens and companies,” he said.

Delay nuclear retirement and bolster bioenergy

Three German nuclear plants and one Belgian reactor are scheduled to close this year — part of a trend away from nuclear energy in some countries prompted by the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Forestalling these closures, combined with the completion of a new reactor in Finland and running bioenergy plants at full capacity, could slash future gas demand by about 13 billion cubic meters without increasing emissions, according to the IEA.

Curb industrial demand

While not a long-term solution, the E.U. could urge energy-intensive industries such as ammonia and aluminum producers to assess their winter production plans and consider temporary closures, according to Bruegel. This would save as much as 17 billion cubic meters, depending on the policies adopted and the sectors they affect.

Swap gas for other fossil fuels

Most E.U. countries have pledged to phase out coal, a highly polluting fossil fuel that produces more planet-warming gases than any other energy source. At least 20 European coal power plants are scheduled to retire this year, according to data from the group Europe Beyond Coal. Extending the life of these facilities, running still-operating plants at full throttle or retrofitting gas plants to use other fuels could curb Europe’s gas demand by about 28 billion cubic meters, the IEA says.

But the fact that Europe gets almost half of its imported coal from Russia complicates this option, even if countries are willing to accept an increase in emissions. On the other hand, the U.S. could increase coal exports to fill increased European demand.

This winter will be incredibly difficult for Europe, said Alexander Carius, founder and director of the Berlin-based climate think tank Adelphi. The economy will suffer. People will struggle to heat their homes and pay their electricity bills. It will be a challenge for leaders to rally support for the longer-term climate investments they say are necessary to ensure the continent’s future energy security.

But Carius said he thinks Europeans would be open to drastic change.

“People see that we are the victim now of a fossil-fuel-based economy that is suffering from price peaks where we are dependent on very inhumane governments,” he said. “I think the population at large is ready to take these costs.”

Cuts of Russian gas proposed by 2030

Here’s how the E.U. aims to transform its energy system — and sever its dependence on Russia — by the year 2030.

Produce more bioenergy

The E.U. aims to expand its use of biomethane — a gas produced from decomposing organic material, such as animal manure or landfill waste. By the end of the decade, the European Commission says, roughly 35 billion cubic meters of gas could come from these organic sources.

Scale up production of fossil-free hydrogen

The universe’s most abundant element can be burned or used in a fuel cell to create electricity, and it’s considered especially useful for decarbonizing industries that can’t easily switch to electric power. It can even flow through some of the same infrastructure now used to transport natural gas.

However, most hydrogen is currently made with fossil fuels, making it no less polluting than ordinary oil, gas and coal. E.U. leaders this month called for dramatically scaling up production of fossil-free hydrogen, made with nuclear power or other renewable energy sources. This could offset between 25 and 50 billion cubic meters of gas, the European Commission says.

Continue to install heat pumps

By the end of the decade, the E.U. aims to install electric heat pumps in 30 million homes, curbing gas demand by an estimated 35 billion cubic meters.

Accelerate efforts to make building more efficient

By improving insulation, upgrading appliances, issuing smart thermostats and otherwise renovating the most polluting 15 percent of buildings, the bloc believes it can reduce the need for up to 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year.

Triple Europe’s solar and wind energy production

The E.U. aims to produce enough renewable energy from these two sources to displace 170 billion cubic meters of gas by the end of the decade. E.U. leaders say they will invest in supply chains and streamline permitting processes to make this rapid deployment possible. Additional 140 billion cubic meters are not shown on the board.

Strategies to cut dependence on Russian oil

Compared with the E.U.’s plans to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, its hope of eventually achieving independence from Russian oil is technically easier. That’s because a large share of Europe’s oil imports arrive by ship, whereas most of its gas from Russia comes through pipelines. Ships can be dispatched from around the world to replace Russian imports.

But there are major logistical and technical challenges looming that have made European leaders resist pressure to join the U.S. and Canadian bans on Russian oil, even as they’ve announced plans to phase out natural gas.

First, rerouting oil shipments around the continent can’t happen overnight. Second, European refineries are set up to refine Russian crude oil and might be less efficient at producing gasoline and other petroleum products with imports from other sources.

“At the moment, Europe’s supply of energy for heat generation, mobility, power supply and industry cannot be secured in any other way,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said earlier this month, calling Russian supplies “essential” to Europe’s economy for now.

That leaves Europe and the rest of the world with one lever to pull to curb both rising oil prices and Russian imports: reducing demand.

Reduce oil consumption

The market for oil is global, which means everyone feels it when prices soar. But it also means that actions by governments and individuals around the world can reduce the pain caused by price shocks. Europe doesn’t have to confront this problem on its own.

A report published earlier this month by the IEA laid out 10 steps countries could take to cut their oil consumption at the moment when demand tends to peak: the summer driving season. The measures include new restrictions, such as speed limit reductions, driving bans on Sundays in cities and limits on when business air travelers could fly short distances, rather than take a train.

There are also measures to encourage people to work from home up to three days a week where possible, which could save as much as 500,000 barrels of oil per day and incentivize walking and cycling. The report notes that these types of programs already exist in some parts of Europe. In Belgium, France and Italy, the government gives residents an allowance to buy a bicycle, with the amount varying by bicycle type.

If advanced economies embrace these measures fully, the IEA estimates they would lower global oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day within four months, an amount greater than all the crude oil and condensate that flowed from Russia to E.U. member countries on an average day last year.

“These measures are not only going to provide comfort to the oil market in the next months to come, in the emergency situation, but they are also paving the way for a cleaner and secure energy world, which are already in line with our clean-energy transition goals,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

The report also notes that action by countries to speed the adoption of electric vehicles will pay off in the future by lowering oil use and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The E.U.’s proposal for doing this, which it announced last summer, envisions banning sales of new gasoline and diesel-engine cars by 2035.

In its 2021 Electric Vehicle Outlook report, Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that the shift to battery-powered vehicles could decrease Europe’s oil demand by 600,000 barrels per day in 2030 and 2.3 million barrels per day in 2040.

As sales of electric vehicles grow, experts caution that they will only become a more climate-friendly option if they’re charged and manufactured using mainly clean sources of energy.

Some of the lifestyle and driving changes laid out in the IEA report would be familiar to anyone who lived through the 1973 oil crisis, when the United States lowered national highway speed limits to 55 miles per hour and countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands adopted car-free Sundays. But in the U.S., requirements that Americans drive less or slower are not being seriously considered or even debated right now.

About this story

Numbers for imports of natural gas come from European and Russian statistical agencies. They were collected and harmonized by Global Trade Tracker and analyzed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Figures for oil imports come from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, and include crude oil, as well as related products.

Editing by Monica Ulmanu and Juliet Eilperin.