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Is the war in Ukraine accelerating Europe’s transition to renewable energy?

Renewable energy production in Europe reached record levels following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prompting some energy analysts to predict that Europe is ready to move forward with creating clean energy.

Other analysts, however, forecast a cut in European emissions through a widely anticipated recession, energy austerity and deindustrialisation next year.

From March to September, electricity generated from solar PV and wind power in the European Union increased by a record 13 percent, from 311 terawatt-hours to 350 TWh, year over year, according to a report by energy experts. E3G and Ember.

At a time when Russia was cutting off gas supplies to Europe and raising fears of blackouts, this had the added attraction of being a secure supply at stable prices.

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Fossil fuel producers, including Russia, made a windfall of $2 trillion during the war, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The EU’s solar and wind electricity production saved it from having to import some 70 billion cubic meters of gas worth $99 billion, according to E3G and Ember.

“The war had two effects: it accelerated the deployment of projects that were already in the pipeline; and led to increased ambition on the part of member states with an impact on the deployment pipeline for years to come,” Artur Patuleia, one of the report’s authors, told Al Jazeera.

Professor Jonathan Stern, who heads the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, is less optimistic.

“We are going to enter a great recession in Europe. I think it could be worse than [the COVID-19 pandemic recession of] 2020, leading to de-industrialization, forcing industries to relocate to the Middle East and the US. None of that is even remotely good and suggests political instability,” he told Al Jazeera.

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Energy-intensive industries such as metals say high energy prices could prompt them to move out of Europe.

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Renewable energy will remain attractive, Stern says, but there won’t be enough money to scale it up because European governments have committed $500bn to subsidize industry and consumers.

That’s double what the EU is offering in loan guarantees for new renewable energy capacity through its flagship Recovery and Resilience Fund during 2020-27.

“The lesson of the $500 billion … is that when governments are afraid that people will lose their energy, they are prepared to commit almost any sum to prevent it,” Stern said.

“Ambitions need money, and one of the problems is that investment in renewable energy seems to be slowing down, at least in many European countries. The way to fix that is for governments to come in and put up the money to make sure it happens, but governments are short on money,” he added.

What about the long-term effects of war?

The IEA believes that the EU-Russia energy split is permanent.

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Russian coal stopped entering the EU in August, crude oil will stop flowing next month and refined oil products will be banned in February as part of EU sanctions.

In retaliation, Russia has cut gas supplies by 80 percent compared to last year.

The loss of Russian gas has led to a greater reliance on coal, the IEA said in its annual World Energy Outlook report.

But “in all our scenarios, the European Union offsets the loss of Russian imports with an accelerated transition away from natural gas through increased renewable capacity additions and a push to retrofit buildings and install heat pumps.” .

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Some effects are global. Fossil fuels have for decades generated about 80 percent of the total energy demand. For the first time, the IEA sees this changing to 75 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2050, simply on the basis of established policies. If the announced promises are fulfilled, it is to be assumed that these percentages would fall even more.

The IEA also forecasts that global annual investment in renewable energy will nearly double to $2 trillion by 2030.

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This is not enough to reach the United Nations goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, he says, but it is a big improvement on last year’s outlook.

“This can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system thanks to the unprecedented response of governments around the world,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

Europe’s green path lurches from crisis to crisis

Europe’s path to a cleaner future has been rocked through recent crises.

For five years after the Paris Agreement, where UN members pledged to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), global investment in renewable energy was flat at $1 trillion a year. year, the IEA said.

In 2020, during the pandemic recession, Europe launched a $730 billion stimulus package, the Recovery and Resilience Fund, allocating 37 percent to renewable generation capacity. This was to help reach the goal of generating 32 percent of total final energy consumption from renewables by 2030.

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In 2021, amid reports of accelerating climate change, the EU decided to generate 40 percent of total final energy consumption from renewables by 2030.

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Three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the EU raised that target to 45 percent.

Total final energy consumption includes electricity production, transportation, heating and cooling. Complying with it requires producing at least 69 percent of electricity from renewable sources.

E3G and Ember believe that the ambitions of some member states are already exceeding that goal. Portugal, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands plan to produce all of their electricity from renewables by 2030, and Germany and Spain plan to produce around 80 percent by then.

In July, the European Commission asked countries to voluntarily reduce gas use by 15 percent. Most countries have made it, analysts say.

“The recession is going to fix our emissions,” says Stern, at least in the short term. He was shown to have done so during the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns led to a 4 per cent drop in energy use and a 5.8 per cent drop, the largest in history, in emissions.

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“People are saying [the energy crisis] it is a good thing, because we have to reduce our emissions anyway.”

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