Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, one question has been plaguing European governments: what would happen if Moscow decides to cut the gas supply? This would be a powerful trump card for Putin if the war was to drag on into the winter season. Citizens of countries that were not directly involved in the war wondered why their comfort and livelihoods were being sacrificed.
However, a milder-than-expected winter, coupled with a coordinated effort to reduce gas consumption, has taken away one of Putin’s biggest bargaining chips. European governments now have a window of opportunity to align and reduce reliance on Russian gas before another winter arrives. This could play a crucial role in keeping the West’s front united as the war drags on.
Adam Bell, a former British government official in charge of energy, says that the warm winter “effectively bought Europe a year.” He cautions, however, that just storing gas is not enough. Efficiency measures such as insulation of homes and businesses and shifting manufacturing processes away from natural gas should be implemented.
Critics accuse European governments of focusing too much on controlling the immediate price of gas, rather than investing in longer-term measures such as efficiency and renewable energy. Milan Elkerbout, researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies, says that “making gas cheaper removes the incentive to reduce global consumption.”
In the medium term, Europe has an opportunity to implement some of the changes in its energy consumption habits that have proved politically difficult. Governments could do more to encourage and accelerate the development of renewable energy sources and create storage capacity for liquid natural gas.
However, there is a risk of complacency returning and a failure to support Europe’s energy independence. The International Energy Agency said in December that global demand for coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – reached a record high in 2022, amid the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war.
This time, General Winter is not helping Russia – and that “sheer luck” gives us another year. European nations must seize this brief opportunity to bolster their energy security and reduce their reliance on Russian gas before another winter arrives. Doing so could be the key to keeping the West’s front united as the war continues.