Speeding up history in the face of war: How the invasion of Ukraine has shaken up the EU’s energy transition plan

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the significance of energy policy as a major power issue. It is an opportunity to break toxic dependence in geostrategic and climate terms.

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In its latest report, the International Energy Agency shows that the geopolitical context since the war in Ukraine has had an unprecedented impact on the energy transition. While a number of changes had already been initiated, such as those concerning renewable energies, the war in Ukraine seems to have accelerated them. In addition, European sanctions have massively reduced Russian gas imports into Europe. Under European sanctions, Russia reduced the flow of its gas pipelines to the EU by around 80%, prompting European states to find alternatives in a short space of time. This episode was an opportunity for many member states to reflect on their energy policy and, above all, the energy transition. 

The war in Ukraine revealed that energy policy is a major power issue. This is illustrated by the expression “war ecology” defined by Pierre Charbonnier. According to him, the war in Ukraine is an opportunity to break a toxic dependence, both in geostrategic terms and in terms of climate policy. Achieving energy sufficiency would kill two birds with one stone, by aligning the imperative of coercing the Russian regime with the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, “the period 2020-2021 was marked by a radical shift in the balance of competitiveness between renewables and existing fossil fuel and nuclear energy options”. So let’s take a look at how the war in Ukraine has affected the energy transition – has it accelerated or slowed it down?

What responses has the EU put in place? 

First of all, there is a desire at the European level to promote the EU’s independence, while also attempting to take account of the climate objectives set out in the European Green Deal.

This is illustrated first and foremost by the introduction of the RePower EU plan. What does this plan consist of? This plan, proposed by the EU a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in line with the demands of the 27 member states, aims to massively reduce Russian gas imports, to do without them altogether by 2027. This strategy is based on four pillars: saving energy, replacing Russian fossil fuels with other hydrocarbons, promoting renewable energies and investing in new infrastructures such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.

We can therefore see that the EU Commission, while wishing to reduce member states’ dependence on Russia, also aims to achieve the Green Deal’s climate objectives. The strategic objective is linked to the climate objective. Through this plan, it is proposing to increase the EU’s renewable energy target from 40% to a minimum of 42.5% by 2030. To reach this objective, at the end of the year, the EU adopted a regulation aimed at speeding up the procedure for granting construction permits for renewable energy projects. 

Through the RePower EU plan, the EU has also decided to bet on hydrogen, setting a target of 10 million tonnes of domestic production of renewable hydrogen and a similar figure for imports by 2030. The creation of a European Hydrogen Bank is also planned, with the task of investing 3 billion Euros to develop this market on the continent, as announced by Ursula Von Der Leyen during her State of the Union address last September.

Are there any concrete examples of the successful implementation of this plan?

Yes, especially when it comes to the development of renewable energies. After the war, the use of renewable energies rose sharply. Between 2022 and 2023, European renewable energies increased by 57.3 GW. This figure is set to rise further, given that the RED III directive, the result of the RePower EU plan, calls for doubling the share of renewable energies in European energy consumption to 42.5% by 2030. This increase in investment in renewable energies has helped bring prices down. However, their role in heating, and especially in transport, is still limited, although growing.

It’s worth noting that this increase in investment in renewable energies has not been confined to Europe alone, as it is China that has increased its renewable energy production capacity the most (+ 141GW)

What initiatives have been put in place at national levels?

Many member states have also taken steps to reduce their dependence on Russian gas imports. In 2022, for example, Lithuania declared its autonomy from the gas pipeline linking it to Russia, thanks to its LNG terminal and links with its neighbours. Shortly afterwards, Poland was able to put the suspension of Gazprom supplies into perspective, thanks to its LNG terminal and cross-border gas pipelines. Co-financed by the EU, the various cross-border gas pipelines have proved invaluable in times of crisis, embodying the principle of solidarity proclaimed in the Treaty of the European Union.  In coastal areas, LNG terminals, previously under-utilized, have made it possible to diversify supplies, even if technical constraints remain between certain member states. 

States have also sought to find other countries that can provide them with energy. So there has been a revival of confidence in nuclear power throughout the EU. Italy and Germany have also sought to establish or renew bilateral partnerships. However, the diversity of national energy mixes and the differing levels of vulnerability between member states could well lead to a situation where each country is left to its own devices.

Finally, the war in Ukraine was also an opportunity for many states to review their position on nuclear energy, as was the case with Germany. 

Can the EU afford the energy ambitions proposed in its RePower EU plan? 

The plan will cost 210 billion euros, and major investments are needed. That’s why InvestEU, the EU’s flagship investment program, was created. Its original aim was to finance a green and digital revival, but with the crisis in Ukraine, the plan is now part of Europe’s drive for emancipation from Russian oil and gas. At present, the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels costs 100 billion euros a year. To free itself from this, an investment of 210 billion euros is required by 2027. However, the EU has already far exceeded 210 billion euros: the 27 countries have spent a combined total of 314 billion euros, bringing the EU’s bill to almost 450 billion euros.

Will Europe emerge stronger from the energy crisis? 

While the oil shocks saw European states reacting in a scattered fashion (not necessarily contradictorily, incidentally), the gas crisis provoked by Russia has confirmed the timeliness and effectiveness of a European approach. This energy crisis has made European countries realise the strategic importance of energy supply and has been the starting point for in-depth reflection on the importance of ensuring their independence.

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