Jack Richardson is a Climate Programmes Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.
The Biden administration’s foreign policy is under intense scrutiny. And while the focus is rightly on Afghanistan now, it isn’t the President’s first strategic misstep. In Europe, his green light for Nord Stream 2 (NS2), a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, to go ahead was unpardonable folly.
Many conservatives in the United States and United Kingdom share the view of Poland and Ukraine that the move is a strategic, economic, and political mistake which risks the stability of the European Union and NATO. And, despite Angela Merkel’s reputation as the ‘Climate Chancellor’, NS2 is catastrophic for the environment and damages our efforts to fight climate change.
A warmer world threatens the economic growth and national security of every country. This summer has seen calamitous flooding in Europe and Asia, droughts and fatal heatwaves in North America, and wildfires in the Sub-Arctic. As the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained, more frequent extreme weather will hamper our standard of living here in the UK and be costly to rebuild from and adapt to. It will also cause instability and the mass displacement of people abroad, making the world more dangerous.
The politics of a multipolar world combined with grey areas of conflict may yield deadly consequences, as states are forced to compete more fiercely over the earth’s depleting natural resources.
Add a rising global temperature with all its extremities to the mix, and it will be harder to maintain stability in sensitive regions. To mitigate the worst effects of climate change, world leaders agreed in 2015 to limit global warming to well below two degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. This requires the reduction of carbon emissions to ‘net zero’, which in turn means a systematic transition in the technologies and techniques that we use to produce energy, manufacture goods, and manage our land.
The EU is working to establish itself as a leader in the fight against climate change, no doubt partly because of the massive economic gain it can make by specialising in Net Zero industries early. The UK is doing so too, hence the government’s backing of the offshore wind sector and carbon capture and storage in particular. Through NS2, however, Germany is greatly undermining Europe’s energy transition.
Germany’s fear of (zero carbon) nuclear energy, which it lumps in with coal power as a dirty source of energy to discard as part of its Energiewende (energy transition), is partly to blame. It sees gas as a means to ditch these two energy sources because it emits less carbon than coal. This is true, but gas is still a huge part of the climate change problem.
NS2, which costs more than refurbishing the existing Brotherhood Pipeline in Ukraine and Slovakia, is plainly Vladimir Putin’s bid to deprive these countries of their position as a transit country, which serves as their only insurance against Russian aggression. Germany is leaving its Eastern European allies more vulnerable and less well off for its own gain. It’s also undermining its own transition to a net zero economy by making itself and Europe more dependent upon Russian fossil fuels for decades to come.
Russia also has a dreadful environmental record. It is responsible for nearly 15 per cent of global flaring – the controlled burning of natural gas during production. Compare this to its gas-producing neighbour Norway, which banned routine flaring fifty years ago. In 2018, Russia wasted roughly the total annual gas consumption of Poland and Lithuania combined from flaring. Germany is perpetuating this problem by creating more demand with few strings attached, even though it has arguably the most economic capacity in Europe to pursue zero carbon instead.
The Biden administration’s capitulation on the issue is also bad news for climate action. One of his first actions in office was cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline project, continuing Barack Obama’s policy of opposing the oil pipeline due to it undermining Washington’s climate change policy. Biden’s blessing for NS2 undermines his credibility; American politicians are now legitimately asking why Biden appears to support those working in Russian gas more than American oil.
Though supposedly still “opposed” to the deal, the State Department pushed for a deal to “protect” Ukraine by making Russian aggression an automatic trigger for the disconnection of Nord Stream 2 gas. Berlin opposes this, though will contribute to a new $1 billion “Green Fund for Ukraine”, which seeks to compensate the country for leaving it poorer and more threatened, and to make Ukraine more energy independent. It justifiably prioritises maintaining its main protection against Russian invasion over new wind turbines.
A better strategy would be to use combined European and American leadership in zero carbon energy to speed up the European transition from fossil fuels, as well as to push back against China’s strategy of dominating supply chains for future industries. This could be achieved through promoting clean free trade and greater cooperation between democracies, but will require bold domestic action too.
Under the thin veil of Ostpolitik (“Eastern policy”), Germany is not only greatly undermining European security and the political integration project it leads, but European energy transition and global climate action as a whole. After the devastation from flooding caused in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, Merkel should know better.