Energy adversity as Europe's opportunity

The European Union’s ideals help unite its members to work together in the face of Russia’s gas cutoff.

A pizza is baked in a traditional Italian pizza oven fired with natural gas at a restaurant in Bonn, Germany, Oct. 11.

Earlier this year, barely a month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union set a prescient goal. It required all of the bloc’s natural gas storage facilities to be filled to 80% of capacity by Nov. 1 to safeguard against potential energy disruptions caused by the war. When the deadline arrived yesterday, Europe had smashed its targets. Its reserves stand at 95% – despite the flow of Russian gas being reduced to a trickle.

That’s not all. As the continent heads into winter confronting an acute energy crisis – Europe has relied on Russia for 40% of its energy needs – the EU has required all its members to reduce electricity by at least 5%. Countries like France, Switzerland, and Greece have gone even further, setting their own goals to cut energy use by as much as 15%. Some have already met their targets.

Europe’s energy-saving goals fit a newfound urgency about the continent’s resilience. The EU has spent decades coordinating for the unexpected. But a sudden confluence of crises – the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, weather disruptions, the use of digital disinformation to undermine elections – has shaken assumptions about security. One concern, for example, is Europe’s dependence on powerful autocracies like Russia and China for energy and commercial supply chains. As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung last month, “We can no longer allow ourselves to become existentially dependent on any country that doesn’t share our values.” 

That point hints at a common denominator in dealing with diverse challenges – whether in Europe or elsewhere. As the recently published Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll found, the ability of societies to cope with and overcome shocks depends on the confidence that individuals have in their communities and public institutions to uphold the common good. Europe filled its gas reserves in part by shifting temporarily to coal for some industries and generating more electricity by wind and solar. Finns are taking fewer saunas. Italians are boiling pasta less.

“There are countries that have saved 10% or 20% very quickly in an emergency where people feel solidarity and public purpose,” Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, told the French newspaper Le Monde.

“It’s absolutely crucial to bear in mind that societal resilience is not just about government activity, nor should it be,” Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Carnegie Europe. “Resilience is the responsibility of the whole of society, and fortunately a great deal is happening there.”

Instead of merely bracing for a winter of hardship in the face of energy shortages, Europeans have found strength in shared solutions and sacrifice. They are showing the best defense starts with ideals that bind people to act for a common good.

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