New Year’s Day 2009. A cold spell from the Arctic sweeps across Europe. At 7 in the morning, whilst much of Europe is still sleeping off the effects of New Year’s Eve, Gazprom announces it has cut off the supply of natural gas. Amid tensions between Moscow and Kiev over gas prices, Russia has closed the gas pipeline running through the Ukraine that supplies Central and Eastern Europe as well. The interruption wears on for 20 days; parts of the population in countries like Slovakia, Bulgaria and Moldova have no gas to heat their homes in the dead of this bitterly cold winter. According to the latest figures from the European Commission, the EU depends on fossil fuel imports for 50% of its energy. And it is estimated that this figure could hit 70% by 2030. At first glance, energy security and climate change seem to be two different problems, but it turns out they are far more interconnected that would appear.

The energy sector accounts for 64% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 85% of its CO2 emissions. “Energy is the heart of the problem – and should be at the core of the solution as well,” insists Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency. So renewable energy could be instrumental in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on foreign energy suppliers. Clean energy does not give off any emissions, nor does it involve importing raw materials of any kind. It makes use of the elements, like sun and wind, or domestically-produced fuels like biomass. Before heading to the summit in Copenhagen, the European Union pledged to cut greenhouse gas pollution by 20% – or as much as 30% if other countries make comparable commitments – and to increase renewable energy production to cover 20% of consumption by the year 2020. This figure includes energy used for transport, which means renewable power will account for roughly 40% of total output, with peaks of up to 80% or 90%.

Putting the brake on transport emissions

The consensus in the scientific community is that the temperature must not rise more than 2ºC from pre-industrial levels if we are to avert a climate catastrophe, for which the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere must not exceed 450 parts per million (current level: 387 ppm). According to recommendations the IEA has made to the Copenhagen conferees, to achieve this target we need to capture and store CO2 emissions from gas- and coal-fired power plants – and resort to nuclear energy. And that would entail spending $6.6 trillion, the agency calculates, on an all-out energy overhaul: 72% of the total investment would go into renewables, 19% into nuclear energy and 9% into CO2 capture and storage (CCS). The IEA had to include these non-renewable technologies in view of the huge proliferation of thermal power stations and dire growth forecasts for overpopulated countries like China and India.

In other words, technology research and transfers from industrialised to developing countries will be essential in curbing carbon emissions. This will be a pivotal issue in the climate talks. Countries like China and India have no desire to check their economic growth, logically enough, so they are demanding technology incentives for any commitment to slashing greenhouse gas emissions. And how can we curb emissions caused by transport? The electric car could prove one of the keystones of the solution to climate change. “60% of motor vehicles have to be electric by 2030,” says Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the IEA. That would yield a sustainable two-pronged energy policy: electric cars and renewables. Some clean sources, like wind, generate more power at night, when consumption is down. “Electric vehicles, seeing as they are generally recharged in the morning, are expected to facilitate the integration of more renewable energy production into the power grid,” assures Luis Atienza, the president of the Spanish utility Red Eléctrica de España.