Navalny cloud may yield green energy silver lining

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Angela Merkel is in an unenviable position. The German chancellor suspects that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok by his own government. That makes Berlin’s landmark gas pipeline partnership with Moscow, Nord Stream 2, even more controversial. The intense awkwardness may in time be seen as useful. 

In an ideal world, Merkel would take a principled stand similar to her 2015 decision to allow mass Syrian immigration into Germany. She would seal off the German end of the nearly complete 1,230-kilometre pipeline, and refuse to do business with Russian President Vladimir Putin until he had cooperated with an inquiry into Navalny, who received treatment in a German hospital. That would please environmentalists, who dislike a major new fossil-fuel conduit given the European Union’s ambition to cut carbon emissions by 55% by 2030. It would also delight the United States, which recently amped up Nord Stream 2 sanctions designed to prevent ever-closer Euro-Russian relations. Given Russian gas giant Gazprom’s reliance on European markets, such a stance would give Putin something to think about. 

In practice, Merkel is constrained. In the first half of 2020 natural gas constituted 28% of Germany’s primary energy consumption, according to AG Energiebilanzen. Nearly all of this was imported, and over a third arrived via Russian pipelines. Worse, another fifth of primary energy came from coal, lignite and nuclear power, which is being phased out. 

A global Covid-assisted glut that means current gas supplies are plentiful and prices low may make Nord Stream 2 seem unimportant. But with other big exporters like the Netherlands reducing production as fields decline, the market will tighten. At 40%, renewable energy provided the biggest chunk of domestic power in 2019, but until batteries ease wind’s intermittency problem, countries need gas on energy security grounds. 

Navalny’s recovery eases the pressure on Merkel to act. But the flashpoint could be of some use. Russian gas is championed by advocates of Nord Stream 2 as a cheap bridge to a zero-carbon world. The less Germany can trust Russia, the more its politicians will give renewable energy and storage technology an even greater shove to ensure they don’t have to.