Record prices, fuel shortages, rising poverty, slowing economies: the first energy crisis that's truly global
Energy markets began to tighten in 2021 because of a variety of factors, including the extraordinarily rapid economic rebound following the pandemic. But the situation escalated dramatically into a full-blown global energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The price of natural gas reached record highs, and as a result so did electricity in some markets. Oil prices hit their highest level since 2008.
Higher energy prices have contributed to painfully high inflation, pushed families into poverty, forced some factories to curtail output or even shut down, and slowed economic growth to the point that some countries are heading towards severe recession. Europe, whose gas supply is uniquely vulnerable because of its historic reliance on Russia, could face gas rationing this winter, while many emerging economies are seeing sharply higher energy import bills and fuel shortages.
While today’s energy crisis shares some parallels with the oil shocks of the 1970s, there are important differences. Today’s crisis involves all fossil fuels, while the 1970s price shocks were largely limited to oil at a time when the global economy was much more dependent on oil, and less dependent on gas. The entire word economy is much more interlinked than it was 50 years ago, magnifying the impact. That’s why we can refer to this as the first truly global energy crisis.
Some gas-intensive manufacturing plants in Europe have curtailed output because they can’t afford to keep operating, while in China some have simply had their power supply cut. In emerging and developing economies, where the share of household budgets spent on energy and food is already large, higher energy bills have increased extreme poverty and set back progress towards achieving universal and affordable energy access. Even in advanced economies, rising prices have impacted vulnerable households and caused significant economic, social and political strains.
Climate policies have been blamed in some quarters for contributing to the recent run-up in energy prices, but there is no evidence. In fact, a greater supply of clean energy sources and technologies would have protected consumers and mitigated some of the upward pressure on fuel prices.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine drove European and Asian gas prices to record highs
Disrupted supply chains, bad weather, low investment, and then came Russia's invasion of Ukraine
Energy prices have been rising since 2021 because of the rapid economic recovery, weather conditions in various parts of the world, maintenance work that had been delayed by the pandemic, and earlier decisions by oil and gas companies and exporting countries to reduce investments. Russia began withholding gas supplies to Europe in 2021, months ahead of its invasion of Ukraine. All that led to already tight supplies.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine greatly exacerbated the situation. The United States and the EU imposed a series of sanctions on Russia and many European countries declared their intention to phase out Russian gas imports completely. Meanwhile, Russia has increasingly curtailed or even turned off its export pipelines. Russia is by far the world’s largest exporter of fossil fuels, and a particularly important supplier to Europe. In 2021, a quarter of all energy consumed in the EU came from Russia.
As Europe sought to replace Russian gas, it bid up prices of US, Australian and Qatari ship-borne liquefied natural gas (LNG), raising prices and diverting supply away from traditional LNG customers in Asia. Because gas frequently sets the price at which electricity is sold, power prices soared as well. Both LNG producers and importers are rushing to build new infrastructure to increase how much LNG can be traded internationally, but these costly projects take years to come online.
Oil prices also initially soared as international trade routes were reconfigured after the United States, many European countries and some of their Asian allies said they would no longer buy Russian oil. Some shippers have declined to carry Russian oil because of sanctions and insurance risk. Many large oil producers were unable to boost supply to meet rising demand – even with the incentive of sky-high prices – because of a lack of investment in recent years. While prices have come down from their peaks, the outlook is uncertain with new rounds of European sanctions on Russia kicking in later this year.
Pandemic hangovers and rising interest rates limit public responses, while some countries turn to coal
Some governments are looking to cushion the blow for customers and businesses, either through direct assistance, or by limiting prices for consumers and then paying energy providers the difference. But with inflation in many countries well above target and budget deficits already large because of emergency spending during the Covid-19 pandemic, the scope for cushioning the impact is more limited than in early 2020. Rising inflation has triggered increases in short-term interest rates in many countries, slowing down economic growth.
Europeans have rushed to increase gas imports from alternative producers such as Algeria, Norway and Azerbaijan. Several countries have resumed or expanded the use of coal for power generation, and some are extending the lives of nuclear plants slated for de-commissioning. EU members have also introduced gas storage obligations, and agreed on voluntary targets to cut gas and electricity demand by 15% this winter through efficiency measures, greater use of renewables, and support for efficiency improvements.
To ensure adequate oil supplies, the IEA and its members responded with the two largest ever releases of emergency oil stocks. With two decisions – on 1 March 2022 and 1 April – the IEA coordinated the release of some 182 million barrels of emergency oil from public stocks or obligated stocks held by industry. Some IEA member countries independently released additional public stocks, resulting in a total of over 240 million barrels being released between March and November 2022.
The IEA has also published action plans to cut oil use with immediate impact, as well as plans for how Europe can reduce its reliance on Russian gas and how common citizens can reduce their energy consumption.
The invasion has sparked a reappraisal of energy policies and priorities, calling into question the viability of decades of infrastructure and investment decisions, and profoundly reorientating international energy trade. Gas had been expected to play a key role in many countries as a lower-emitting "bridge" between dirtier fossil fuels and renewable energies. But today’s crisis has called into question natural gas’ reliability.
The current crisis could accelerate the rollout of cleaner, sustainable renewable energy such as wind and solar, just as the 1970s oil shocks spurred major advances in energy efficiency, as well as in nuclear, solar and wind power. The crisis has also underscored the importance of investing in robust gas and power network infrastructure to better integrate regional markets. The EU’s RePowerEU, presented in May 2022 and the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August 2022, both contain major initiatives to develop energy efficiency and promote renewable energies.
1. Heating: turn it down
Lower your thermostat by just 1°C to save around 7% of your heating energy and cut an average bill by EUR 50-70 a year. Always set your thermostat as low as feels comfortable, and wear warm clothes indoors. Use a programmable thermostat to set the temperature to 15°C while you sleep and 10°C when the house is unoccupied. This cuts up to 10% a year off heating bills. Try to only heat the room you’re in or the rooms you use regularly.
The same idea applies in hot weather. Turn off air-conditioning when you’re out. Set the overall temperature 1 °C warmer to cut bills by up to 10%. And only cool the room you’re in.
2. Boiler: adjust the settings
Default boiler settings are often higher than you need. Lower the hot water temperature to save 8% of your heating energy and cut EUR 100 off an average bill. You may have to have the plumber come once if you have a complex modern combi boiler and can’t figure out the manual. Make sure you follow local recommendations or consult your boiler manual. Swap a bath for a shower to spend less energy heating water. And if you already use a shower, take a shorter one. Hot water tanks and pipes should be insulated to stop heat escaping. Clean wood- and pellet-burning heaters regularly with a wire brush to keep them working efficiently.
3. Warm air: seal it in
Close windows and doors, insulate pipes and draught-proof around windows, chimneys and other gaps to keep the warm air inside. Unless your home is very new, you will lose heat through draughty doors and windows, gaps in the floor, or up the chimney. Draught-proof these gaps with sealant or weather stripping to save up to EUR 100 a year. Install tight-fitting curtains or shades on windows to retain even more heat. Close fireplace and chimney openings (unless a fire is burning) to stop warm air escaping straight up the chimney. And if you never use your fireplace, seal the chimney to stop heat escaping.
4. Lightbulbs: swap them out
Replace old lightbulbs with new LED ones, and only keep on the lights you need. LED bulbs are more efficient than incandescent and halogen lights, they burn out less frequently, and save around EUR 10 a year per bulb. Check the energy label when buying bulbs, and aim for A (the most efficient) rather than G (the least efficient). The simplest and easiest way to save energy is to turn lights off when you leave a room.
5. Grab a bike
Walking or cycling are great alternatives to driving for short journeys, and they help save money, cut emissions and reduce congestion. If you can, leave your car at home for shorter journeys; especially if it’s a larger car. Share your ride with neighbours, friends and colleagues to save energy and money. You’ll also see big savings and health benefits if you travel by bike. Many governments also offer incentives for electric bikes.
6. Use public transport
For longer distances where walking or cycling is impractical, public transport still reduces energy use, congestion and air pollution. If you’re going on a longer trip, consider leaving your car at home and taking the train. Buy a season ticket to save money over time. Your workplace or local government might also offer incentives for travel passes. Plan your trip in advance to save on tickets and find the best route.
7. Drive smarter
Optimise your driving style to reduce fuel consumption: drive smoothly and at lower speeds on motorways, close windows at high speeds and make sure your tires are properly inflated. Try to take routes that avoid heavy traffic and turn off the engine when you’re not moving. Drive 10 km/h slower on motorways to cut your fuel bill by around EUR 60 per year. Driving steadily between 50-90 km/h can also save fuel. When driving faster than 80 km/h, it’s more efficient to use A/C, rather than opening your windows. And service your engine regularly to maintain energy efficiency.
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