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Europe: More energy-efficient, but still import-dependent

, February 20, 2017, 0 Comments

europe-fossil-fuel-marketexpress-inTotal energy use in the European Union is slightly lower today than it was in 1990, but fossil fuels remain king, and dependency on fuel imports has grown. Climate and geopolitical risks have grown in tandem.

First, a dry statistic: Eurostat, the European Union’s central statistics agency, released a report on Monday saying that the EU consumed slightly less energy in 2015 than it did in 1990.

“The total amount of energy consumed in the EU in 2015 amounted to 1626 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe), 2.5 percent below its 1990 level, and down by 11.6 percent compared to its peak of almost 1840 Mtoe in 2006,” according to the report.

These figures include energy consumed for all uses, including electricity, heating, and transportation.

Not-so-boring numbers

Why are these numbers interesting? Let’s put them into perspective. Over the same period, gross domestic product (GDP) of the 28 countries in the EU more than doubled. EU GDP in 2015 was about 2.15 times the size of the bloc’s GDP in 1990.

The numbers show that Europe’s economies have become much more energy-efficient at producing goods and services since 1990. That was to be expected, given the long-term trend toward more efficient cars, trucks, industrial and energy-generation equipment, especially in the post-Warsaw Pact countries of central and eastern Europe.

However, the statistics also underline that Europe is failing to do what’s necessary to protect global climate stability. Efforts to decarbonise energy and transport systems have been far too slow and limited in scope. Eurostat’s numbers also show that Europe remains worryingly dependent on energy imports from outside the region.

Thirty years on

It’s been nearly thirty years since June 24, 1988. That was the day leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen rang warning bells heard around the world. He testified at a US Senate hearing that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from the burning of fossil fuels was changing the global climate – and that extremely disruptive long-term consequences could be expected as a result.

Hansen told senators then that “the scientific evidence is compelling: The global climate is changing as the earth’s atmosphere gets warmer. Now, the Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend and how we are going to cope with the changes that may already be inevitable.”

Statistics like those released by Eurostat this week shed light on the question of whether sufficiently serious action has been taken since then on moving toward low-carbon energy sources. The hard and short answer is: No.

EU dependency on imported fossil fuels

Accounting for nearly three-quarters of EU consumption of energy in 2015, fossil fuels have continued to represent by far the main source of energy for Europe. Their proportional weight has decreased over the past three decades, as a result of increased deployment of renewable energy technologies – but only from 83 percent in 1990 to 73 percent in 2015.

In light of Hansen’s warning, since confirmed and intensified by countless scientific studies, that’s very modest progress.

EU dependency on imported energy has gradually increased over the same period, and has continuously stood above 50 percent since 2004, according to Eurostat. It reached 54.1 percent in 2015.

Europe’s dependence on imported fossils fuels has increased especially markedly. 73 percent of fossil fuels consumed in Europe in 2015 were imported, compared with just over half (53 percent) in 1990.

In other words, while one tonne of fossil fuels was imported for each tonne produced in the EU in 1990, by 2015, three tonnes were imported for each tonne produced in the EU.

Most EU member states saw their dependency on fossil fuel imports increase between 1990 and 2015. This was notably the case for the United Kingdom (from a dependency rate of 2 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2015), the Netherlands (from 22 to 56 percent), Poland (from 1 to 32 percent), and the Czech Republic (from 17 to 46 percent).

Looking to Denmark

In 2015, the EU member state by far the least dependent on fossil fuel imports was Denmark (4 percent), followed by Estonia (17), Romania (25) and Poland (32 percent).

Denmark’s leaders decided in 1976, in the wake of the OPEC oil embargoes, to take measures to reduce the country’s dependence on imported energy. Since then, Danish engineers took steps to tap the substantial endowment of oil and natural gas under its North Sea coastal waters, and Denmark has become a net exporter of crude oil.

Denmark has also made great strides in achieving housing-sector energy efficiency, and in installing renewable energy capacity – above all by deploying wind turbines, which supplied 42 percent of the country’s electricity by 2015. (Picture at top: Danish offshore wind turbines at Horns Reef, 20 km offshore from the port of Esbjerg.)

It is clear that Europe will have to move much more quickly than it has in the past to deploy domestic low-carbon energy systems, in order to avoid further destabilising the climate. The subcontinent’s growing dependency on imported fossil fuels provides an additional reason to accelerate the build-out of domestic clean energy systems: Doing so will reduce Europe’s geopolitical dependency on oil and gas imports from unstable or potentially hostile supplier countries.

The continent can look to Denmark for inspiration on both counts.