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OPINION: Here’s how Italy could wean itself off Russian gas

Thursday, 3 March 2022 09:46 GMT

Wind generators are seen in a farm in the countryside near the Sicilian town of Catania, southern Italy, November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A rush to end use of Russian gas, after the country’s invasion of Ukraine, could be the spark toward renewables Italy needs

Luca Bergamaschi is the co-founder and executive director of ECCO, an Italian climate change think tank.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine throws Europe into the middle of a new war on its continent. This decision will have significant repercussions both in the immediate and longer term.

Sanctions on gas, worth around 3% of Russian GDP and 7% of the Kremlin’s budget, and preparations to cut off Russian gas supplies should be part of an effective response to curtail the drivers of this conflict and build a new era of European resilience.

Russia's act of war against Ukraine has finally brought about a consensus on the need to reduce dependence on Russian gas. But it also casts light on the broader fragility of Europe’s dependency on gas and oil imports, which makes the continent highly expose to price volatility, supply shocks and security risks while fueling anti-democratic regimes.

The choice of weaning itself off gas must also be taken in the context of the other major challenge of our time: climate change. The new IPCC report on climate change impact, adaptation and vulnerability shows that exceeding the 1.5 threshold would cause an irreversible loss of entire ecosystems, exposing people and nature to risks to which they will not be able to adapt. This is a permanent crisis scenario.

In Italy, gas has been the transition fuel for 15 years from 1990 to 2005, with an increase in consumption by 80%. This has limited the expansion of coal and avoided a dash for nuclear power, which was blocked by the 1987 referendum.

As a consequence, Italy’s gas system is one of the most advanced and resilient in Europe, but also one extremely dependent on gas imports. Russian gas provides the lion’s share, with over 40% of total gas imports or around 30 bcm per year.

The key challenge today is whether Italy could sustain – from now until next winter – a possible cut in Russian supplies. And how to do so in the most climate-friendly way whilst achieving both energy and climate security objectives.

Our analysis shows Italy could replace the equivalent of 50% of Russian gas imports (over 15 bcm) by next winter through coordinated collective actions of energy savings combined with an accelerated development of renewables.

These actions include immediate savings on heating and electricity consumption in buildings and industry; the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps and the deployment of on-grid and distributed renewables over the next 6 to 12 months; and a reduction of gas use in the transport sector throughout the year.

This would lead to capital savings on Russian gas imports equivalent to €14.5 billion in current gas prices.  

By leveraging in parallel the full exploitation of existing gas infrastructure – including Italy’s storage capacity of 18 bcm equivalent to half the current Russian gas imports – Italy would be able to manage disruptions through to next winter.

Energy savings, renewables and existing infrastructure must be given priority before a new and risky dash for gas. This is however far from the central scenario of Italian policy makers. Prime Minister Draghi’s report in Parliament following Russia’s invasion didn’t even mention the potential of energy efficiency in addressing the gas crisis.

Instead, restarting coal-fired stations, increasing national gas production and building new gas infrastructure, with an eye towards the Mediterranean region, are taking central stage. As with Nord Stream 2, new gas infrastructure can massively backfire.

The planned increase in domestic gas of less than 2 billion cubic metres per year would have no significant impact in terms of volumes but requires significant fiscal support to keep prices low given the high extraction costs. This would also contradict Italy's international climate commitments made at the G20 and COP26 in 2021.

As new polls suggest, the Italian public opinion is ready for more radical change, including the majority of Italians across the political spectrum being ready to either gradually or immediately stop using gas.

Society does not consist of just passive consumers, but of people who are aware of the dire implications of the use of fossil fuels in funding conflicts and on climate. European leaders must now trust and enable the citizens to play their part at this critical juncture.

The ultimate goal is to build a new geopolitical, economic and climate resilience that does not fuel a succession of crises but protects us from them.