Germany sees Russian fossil fuel purge as 'de facto embargo'

Ministers at Berlin summit defend decision not to immediately ban oil and gas imports from Russia

Germany's race to cut out Russian energy comes as it is already trying to eliminate coal and nuclear from its energy mix. AP
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The purge of Russian fossil fuels from Germany's energy mix will amount to a “de facto embargo” even if an immediate import ban is rejected because it could cause famine in poorer countries, senior ministers said on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Germany was seeking a “complete exit” from reliance on Russian energy following the invasion of Ukraine, despite opposing an embargo in talks among the European Union’s 27 members.

Although the EU has promised to cut out Russian energy by 2030 and struck a deal with the US to replace some of its politically toxic imports from Moscow, it has not followed Washington in imposing an immediate ban.

Supporters of such an embargo, such as Poland, say Europe is effectively financing Russia’s month-long onslaught in Ukraine by buying the country’s coal, oil and gas.

But opponents fear it would trigger an economic crisis which Economy Minister Robert Habeck said could take a heavy toll in poorer countries even if wealthy countries in Europe, including its richest country Germany, can withstand it.

Speaking at a Berlin energy forum overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, he said the withdrawal of Russian fossil fuels from the world market could hit gas-intensive fertiliser production, exacerbating a potential food crisis caused by the war between two of the world's major wheat producers.

A loss of fertilisers “could lead to famines in certain countries, and famines are very often the cause of social unrest, or even of political turbulence,” said Mr Habeck, the minister responsible for Germany's energy security. “We have to make sure our changes in energy policy do not happen at the expense of third countries.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck addressed the summit in Berlin. EPA

The war in Ukraine comes at a time when energy prices were already high and leaders are reluctant to increase the economic pain, with an EU summit last week ending without a broad consensus on whether to intervene in the market.

The European Commission has signed a deal with the US to buy American gas in liquefied form but this will only cover about a third of the stocks it typically receives from Russia.

Mr Habeck's ministry says Germany is on course to halve its Russian oil purchases by the middle of this year after importers let contracts run out and switch to different suppliers. It plans to be free of Russian gas by 2024.

“You can call it a de facto, step-by-step national embargo, especially of oil,” said Ms Baerbock.

The two ministers, both from the Green party, took office in December and criticised what they described as an ill-advised energy policy pursued by their predecessors that left Germany highly reliant on Russian energy.

They said the need to cut reliance on gas imports underlined the need to expand solar and wind energy, already a priority of the new government as it tries to put Germany on course for net zero carbon emissions by the 2040s. It plans to remove nuclear power from the energy grid this year and eliminate coal power by 2038.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres emphasised the climate element in brief remarks to the summit, saying the world was “far off track” in trying to reduce its net emissions to zero.

“The current crisis shows that we must accelerate, not slow, the renewable energy transition,” he said. “This is the only true path to energy security and I count on you to lead the way.”

Updated: March 29, 2022, 12:26 PM
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