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Innovation is key to enable the EU to break free from Russian energy

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The war in Ukraine highlights the importance of changing the ways we are thinking about energy and energy replacement. We must seize this moment to look at the energy transformation through a systems innovation lens, integrating and deploying the solutions that already exist across Europe in ways that anticipate the need for resilience and fair distribution - – writes Kirsten Dunlop, CEO of EIT Climate-KIC, the EU’s climate innovation initiative.

If there is one thing that the senseless war in Ukraine has made clear, it is that the EU must completely stop the import of Russian oil and gas to defund Putin’s military efforts quickly and effectively. Last year Europe purchased 42% of the gas that Russia produced, and while there has been heavy debate about how to break the dependency on Russian gas we know that a ban on imports in the short term would be possible, albeit with serious repercussions for some of the member states. The wider issue, however, is how to break the dependency on Russian oil and gas for the long term. Sourcing gas imports from elsewhere or reopening idled coal-fired power plants is not an acceptable way forward in a context of an escalating climate emergency. The solution instead would be to leverage systemic approaches to innovation to accelerate from fragmented and partial energy replacement to wholesale transformation.

Until now, most of our efforts have been focused on replacing high-emitting sources of energy with renewables, and that is important. Yet we continually overlook or underinvest in changing demand. Initiatives that encourage consumers to change their assumptions and expectations on energy use do have positives outcomes. In the UK, a study by the E3G thinktank shows that launching a major public information campaign could have “potentially huge results” in changing people’s behaviour in their heating habits use, leading to a consumption reduction.

But of course, the onus of a transition shouldn’t only be on individuals. Fuel poverty is already an issue for more than 35 million Europeans who can’t afford to keep their homes warm in winter, and it is likely to worsen as European natural gas prices soared by almost 70 per cent and crude oil exceeded $105 a barrel for the first time since 2014 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

We must look beyond individual consumption to tackle demand as a whole, collectively pulling a whole set of levers, from procurement to policy, incentives to social movements, and the enabling framework of the EU Missions-led “moon-shot logic”. Awareness campaigns should be combined with other measures such as increasing support for energy efficiency through existing schemes, accelerating the uptake of the most efficient technologies, and combining innovations in distributed heating, energy generation and storage, cooling, construction design and land use.

As centres of economic activity, innovation and new technologies, cities have a huge role to play in the energy transition, but this transformation requires much more than deploying multiple individual new technologies. Despite the many structural, cultural and institutional barriers we face – most notably the way society is bound by siloed institutions and financing models - what we need is to rethink and reimagine the systems we live in. We must connect, combine, and refine solutions into newly designed ways of living and moving.

Renovating both public and private buildings to drive energy efficiency (retrofitting) is a great place to start, and one of the European Green Deal priorities. Successful local retrofit programs financed by city governments exist, but so far, they have been difficult to scale up. The project Green Neighbourhoods as a Service, for example, envisages the creation of a central entity that designs, commissions, manages and funds deep energy retrofit on a street-by-street scale, using incremental community investments at no cost to the property owners. This centralised process allows for more systemic energy decisions and integration with district heating, while leaving part of the savings with the resident - a powerful tool in tackling fuel poverty.

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As part of the EU’s Mission to “Deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030”, the NetZeroCities, project mobilises stakeholders across Europe to give cities the tools, resources, and expertise they need to drive rapid holistic change. This Horizon 2020-funded project brings together 33 partners from 13 countries. It considers the complexity and interconnections between design, financing, policy recommendations, social innovation, and citizen engagement to propose a coherent and complementary sets of actions. These might include tutoring on innovative finance for city officials, civic engagement mapping approach, social innovation observatory for climate neutrality, a catalogue of solutions and co-benefits, training module for city guides, etc. This is an opportunity for Europe to accelerate large-scale district and city energy transformation in every single member state, demonstrating the possibilities and creating the conditions for national and regional platforms for urban-led energy transition and climate action.

Transport, which has the highest reliance on fossil fuels of any sector, is another area for systems thinking. Here again, Europe can accelerate and connect a series of existing and rapidly accelerating technologies and mechanisms to scale solutions, blend them as needed, and establish interoperable standards. Many people think that the solution is to replace today´s combustion engines with electric vehicles. But the electrification of a large and rising number of private vehicles would pose new challenges such as resource supply, toxicity and waste. We would also continue to sit in traffic for hours and be using more and more space for parking and roads where people increasingly want access to nature and more convenient mobility options instead.

What we need is to plan cities in a fairer and service-diverse way to reduce the need for long trips, by offering the best cycling and walking options, and by offering public transport and pooled mobility options and at the same time using the modules and materials of that system more circular. Electric, magnetic and automated transportation solutions offer diverse possibilities for complementing current transportation systems, connecting local communities to districts and cities with improved effective public transportation and supply-chain logistics. Such optimisation would save enormous amounts of materials like steel and fuel, reduce air pollution, and improve quality of life. At the same time, this is the moment to amplify awareness and education campaigns for more sustainable driving and transportation habits, healthy working from home habits and connectivity without mobility.

The technologies exist. The remaining obstacles are in our minds: to embrace and embed different expectations and values, understand how solutions might be interconnected and layered, and work out how to activate and deploy them in a way that won’t widen the gap between Europeans. Equal distribution and social justice should in fact be at the heart of how we mobilise to break free from our dependency on Russian energy.

Europe is already harnessing talents and tools for people to experiment together on the ways we approach energy, security, and regenerative ways of living. These examples are proof that systemic thinking and cooperation between all actors - from politics to businesses to finance institutions to civil society - work. To us, this horrible war calls for radical collaborations between public and private organisations and for us to create space for imagining new alternatives for people and for the planet, to decarbonise our entire economy.

Building our future now is an imperative. Rebuilding Ukraine will be our next opportunity to win back hope and failure to do so could further destabilise an already fragile political situation.

Kirsten Dunlop is CEO of EIT Climate-KIC, the EU’s climate innovation initiative, working to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon and resilient world by enabling systems transformation

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