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Snow in Freiburg, Germany. Photo credit: Sangga Rima Roman Selia

Mild weather thus far saving Europe from an energy crisis

Countries across Europe are currently experiencing warmer-than-expected weather for the first few days of the year. Experts say that even if an energy crisis has been averted for the moment, cold weather or supply delays could still create an upheaval further down the line.

Published: January 21, 2023, 7:59 am

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    After supplies of gas and oil from Russia to Europe fell sharply in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, Europe had braced itself for high energy prices and a harsh winter. But a number of different factors, including milder than expected weather, seem to be mitigating the crisis.

    According to Bloomberg, various factors, including clement weather, alternative gas suppliers, efforts to curb demand and sufficient gas reserves, are playing a role in keeping prices relatively stable.

    According to Scientific American, Europe’s weather stations recorded their highest January temperatures ever on the first day of the year.

    Climatologist Maximiliano Herrera told the newspaper that Germany alone broke almost a thousand records in the first days of the new year. All of Europe saw thousands more records being broken and Herrera described the hot weather as “probably one of the most intense ever seen”.

    France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands experienced the mildest weather, while Luxembourg, Poland and Belarus also broke local records. Herrera said some weather stations showed temperatures that were higher than average for the month of July. London-based meteorologist Scott Duncan pointed to several factors, including an ongoing La Niña, that parts of the North Pacific and Mediterranean are unusually warm and, of course, “climate change”.

    “Our warming of the atmosphere and oceans ultimately makes it easier to break temperature records, and that undoubtedly played a role,” Duncan told Scientific American via email.

    Enough reserves?

    According to Fortune, the world’s largest energy customers now have enough reserves to feel at ease. Germany, through a combination of warmer weather and lower activity over the weekends, has increased its gas stocks to over 90 percent full. At the same time, gas storage throughout Europe is 84 percent full – that’s well above the five-year average of 70 percent, according to Fortune.

    This is because the EU has managed to reduce gas demand, develop new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities and import more fuel from the US and Qatar, according to Newsweek. Industry in the EU has reduced its consumption by a fifth without significantly reducing its production, Henning Gloystein, head of energy, climate and resources at Eurasia Group, told the newspaper. Gloystein added that warmer weather and higher costs have caused households to moderate consumption.

    Experts said the worst-case scenario would be a “super cold winter” in Europe. Adam Pankratz, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, pointed out to Al Jazeera that Europe lacked access to its own natural resources.

    “The worst economic scenario is that the European economy goes into an absolute free fall… because they can’t produce anything, because it’s too expensive… and the government prioritizes using gas to heat people’s homes instead of for industry,” Pankratz said.

    “The second worst scenario is that you actually run out of gas and people can’t heat their homes, but I don’t see that as a likely event,” he added.

    Experts have warned that higher electricity bills, rising unemployment and an economic slowdown could lead to people taking to the streets to protest. Pankratz added that Europe’s problem was that it did not have enough time.

    “Saying you need an LNG import facility or a nuclear reactor in a few years is like saying you need it tomorrow morning… It has to happen very quickly, and these things are very complicated,” he added.

    Economic meltdown averted?

    Optimists maintain that the current conditions, if they continue to prevail, would moderate inflation and stabilize economic conditions.

    “The danger of a complete economic collapse, a meltdown of European industry, has been – as far as we can see – averted,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told Bloomberg.

    “We are very optimistic, which we really weren’t last fall,” Klaus Mueller, head of Germany’s gas network authority, said on Friday. “The more gas we have in the warehouses at the beginning of the year, the less stress and expense we will have to fill them again for next winter.”

    Experts, however, told Fortune that fuel prices could soar and that stocks could be depleted due to cold weather in late winter. The networks must also start planning for next winter while taking into account the lack of Russian supplies.

    What does La Niña signify?

    The La Niña climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean can impact weather worldwide. During La Niña, trade winds blowing along the equator are stronger than usual and push more warm water toward Asia. These shifts push the jet stream northward. During La Niña winters, the northern hemisphere may see frequent cold air outbreaks and heavy snowfalls.

    This year’s winter, as indicated by the seasonal predictions from various climate models and statistical approaches developed at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, abnormal warming will very likely cover most parts of Europe under the control of the North Atlantic Oscillation and the anomalous anticyclone near the Ural Mountains, despite the cooling effects of La Niña.

    However, how the climate will evolve in Europe is still subject to some uncertainty, mostly in terms of unpredictable internal atmospheric variability.

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