As frantic diplomatic efforts continue to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas supplies – and what would happen to them in the case of a war – remains an ever-present threat. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we speak to two experts on the geopolitics of natural gas about the history of the energy relationship between Russia and Europe, and the role gas supplies play in the current diplomatic efforts to avoid war.
And, the Beijing Winter Olympics are the first games to use 100% artificial snow. We talk to a sports ecologist about what that might mean for the athletes – and for the environment around the Olympic sites.
Russia has been supplying western Europe with natural gas for more than 50 years. “The precise date is 1968,” says Michael Bradshaw. “That’s when the Soviet Union reached agreement with Austria to deliver natural gas by pipeline.” Bradshaw, a professor of global energy at Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick in the UK, says it’s a relationship that has “weathered a number of geopolitical crises”, including the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, Russia supplies Europe with around 40% of its natural gas, predominantly through pipelines. And according to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, in 2021, 22% of the gas Russia delivered to Europe – including Turkey – passed through Ukraine. That makes the question of what would happen to these gas flows in the event of a Russian invasion particularly urgent.
Ukraine: how an armed conflict could play out
The future of Nord Stream 2, a new pipeline taking gas directly from Russia direct to northern Germany, is at risk. “It’s become a symbol of how Russia is using natural gas to play out the European states against each other and to divide the European Union,” says Anastasiya Shapochkina, a lecturer in geopolitical at Sciences Po in France.
Construction of Nord Stream 2 finished in late 2021, but regulatory delays mean no gas is yet flowing through the pipeline. In early February, at a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House, US President Joe Biden said if Russia did invade Ukraine “there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” Scholz opted instead for strategic ambiguity about the pipeline’s future in the case of a war.
Bradshaw says if Russia did invade, the consensus among analysts is that “it’s highly unlikely that either side will want to disrupt the flow of natural gas – both sides have got too much to lose from doing that.” He says Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which controls the pipeline gas supply to Europe, relies on the income it makes from these gas exports to supply gas at a lower price to domestic consumers in Russia. But with global energy prices rises and the gas market very tight, if the EU imposed economic sanctions that stopped the flow of gas, Bradshaw says “that would make a bad situation even worse” for Europe.
Ukraine: Russia probably won’t turn off the gas, but the problem won’t go away any time soon
For Shapochkina, the most optimistic scenario is that the “energy economic interdependence between Russia and Europe can be a containment factor on the conflict in Ukraine.” However, she says what will be acceptable to European leaders, and Germany in particular, remains an open question. “We could envision the scenario when Russia could be allowed, because of the energy security of Europe, to invade all it wants and still trade with Europe, and even use the Ukrainian gas system to potentially increase its volumes of exports to Europe,” she says.
Longer term, how much Europe will rely on natural gas from Russia depends upon the role gas plays in the energy transition towards renewables – something currently causing controversy within the EU. But in the short term, Europe and its allies are scrambling to secure alternative sources of gas should Russia reduce its gas flows.
In our second story in this episode, what is the environmental impact of a winter Olympics in Beijing with 100% artificial snow? Madeline Orr, a lecturer in sports ecology at Loughborough University London in the UK, recently published research on athletes’ views of competing on artificial snow – which is around 70% ice. “We had a lot of athletes who are quite excited to be competing on artificial snow, because it’s fast and it’s hard,” she says, although some of those competing in aerial events are “more concerned about the injury” from falling on a harder surface. She also explains what all this artificial snow will mean for the environment around the Beijing’s Olympic venues. (Listen from 30m30)
And finally, Haley Lewis for The Conversation in the Canadian capital Ottawa recommends some recent analysis of protests by truckers against COVID-19 restrictions that continue to block the city’s streets. (Listen from 42m50)
This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.
Newsclips in this episode are from BBC News, Associated Press, CGTN, CNBC Television, NDTV, DW News, NBC News and WION.
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Michael Bradshaw receives funding from Natural Environment Research Council in relation to its Unconventional Hydrocarbons in the UK Energy System Research Programme and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in relation to his role as Co-Director for the UK Energy Research Centre. Anastasiya Shapochkina is a director of Eastern Circles, a geo-economics think tank on the former Soviet space.
Madeleine Orr does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.