On Monday, Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, talked about the importance of a green energy transition for democracy and international security in a conversation moderated by Jason Bordoff.

Europe is currently in one of its worst energy crises ever. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU is trying to rapidly wean itself off of Russian natural gas, which, prior to the war, made up about 40% of Europe’s imported natural gas. Over the course of six months, that number has dropped to 15%, sending energy prices soaring and Europe scrambling to find alternative energy sources. 

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Europe was already working to transition to green energy: three years ago, the EU adopted the European Green Deal, which set the goal of a 55% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050. When the European Green Deal was adopted in 2019, Timmermans noted that we knew these targets were essential from the perspective of climate change. When COVID hit only a few months after the Green Deal went into effect, he noted that there were questions about how the Green Deal would fare—but then, “we discovered that the Green Deal was part of the answer to [economic] recovery.”

Now, with the energy crisis brought on by Russia’s aggression, there is yet another pressure to speed up the transition to green energy. Timmermans said “Putin’s war is also about trying to break democracies…and he uses energy as a weapon to do that.” As the EU rapidly weans itself off of Russian gas, the green energy transition is essential to meet Europe’s energy needs and to protect democracy and international security.

Although the move to green energy is clearly the long-term solution in order to eliminate dependency on Russian gas and, eventually, most fossil fuels, Jason Bordoff, the Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy and Co-Director of the Columbia Climate School, asked what seems to be the obvious question: what about this winter? Although the long-term solution is clear, the renewable energy sources needed to meet Europe’s energy needs will not be online by this winter. In all likelihood, it will be several years before these new energy sources are online, meaning that the next several winters will likely be energy-constrained ones in the EU.

Vice President Timmermans acknowledged that this winter will not be easy, and that to get through this period, energy consumption will have to be reduced. The bulk of gas is burned at peak hours, and as such, strategies to reduce peak-hour energy consumption are already being implemented. Even with peak-hour energy consumption, though, Timmermans acknowledged that energy consumption overall will have to be reduced given the reduced energy supply. 

Even with reduced energy consumption, many households are feeling the pressure of soaring energy costs even as many governments have stepped in to try to alleviate this burden. Timmermans did not try to downplay the burden of soaring energy costs. Instead, he noted that it is essential to cap the revenue of energy companies in order to alleviate the pressure that people across the EU are feeling, describing it as an issue of social justice The price of electricity is closely tied to the cost of gas—thus, as gas prices rise, so too does the cost of electricity. For energy generators who can generate energy at a fairly stable cost that is below that of gas, this means their profits rise. Timmermans said that “nobody understands how much money these companies are making.” He continued on to say that it is a matter of not just social justice to cap the profits that these companies are making, but a matter of the survival of democracy, as “every crisis in the last 15 years has led to the rich becoming richer, which cannot continue if democracy is to survive.” 

This led to Professor Bordoff asking what the role of government is in the energy sector, Timmermans said that “we are in the middle of an Industrial Revolution,” and continued on to say that the role of government is fundamentally to redistribute resources. There is an imperative for governments to intervene, as all Industrial Revolutions lead to societal reorderings, and we must take a democratic approach.

Vice President Timmermans was clear that the issues of energy, the future of our planet, and the future of democracies cannot be separated from each other, saying, “Energy is deeply linked with our security.” Though Europe will likely face a difficult winter this year, and likely in years to come, a green energy revolution will yield a stronger, safer, and more democratic Europe in the future.

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