1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

What can Europe do to slash gas consumption?

July 21, 2022

Putin has restarted gas flows through Nord Stream 1. Ahead of the next cut in supply, what can Russian-gas-dependent countries like Germany and Italy do to cut their consumption? A look to the Netherlands might help.

Worker in yellow jumpsuit and white hard hat peeks out from pipe in stack of massive gas pipes
Critics say Russian President Vladimir Putin has weaponized gas deliveries, which many European countries depend onImage: Jens Buettner/AP Photo/picture alliance

For millions, it was a moment of truth: Russian gas again began flowing through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Thursday, and across Europe, officials will be eying whether deliveries keep up at expected levels.  

Many European countries had already been preparing for the possibility of a complete cut since Russia sharply reduced gas flows in mid-June, and with zero gas flow during a period of annual pipeline maintenance that started on July 11.

Governments are considering a raft of measures to head off a crisis that is feared could touch off a recession. That includes changing consumer behavior, a measure that has not been fully tapped — except perhaps in one country.

EU fears Russia may cut off gas deliveries

Netherlands successfully slashes gas consumption

Since the start of the year, the Netherlands has managed to reduce its gas consumption by about a third.

That's more than twice the reduction seen in neighboring Germany, of about 14% from January through May; and vastly more than the reduction of not even 2% in Italy during the same time.

All three countries, among numerous others in Europe, are heavily dependent on natural gas, including Russian gas, for their energy mix.

Bar graph of European countries most dependent on Russian gas

Rene Peters, a gas expert with Dutch research organization TRO, boils the Dutch success down to three main factors: an unusually mild winter, bringing coal-fired power plants back online and a large reduction in gas consumption.

Replacing gas with coal energy and the warm winter accounted for perhaps 5% to 10% of the decrease, he explained. "But the biggest impact is the reduction of the use of gas by both households and industry," he said.

The Dutch government launched a large-scale campaign calling on households and companies to reduce their gas consumption back in April.

Under the motto "zet de knop om," or "turn the knob down," citizens were asked to heat their homes less. This was accompanied by additional incentives to insulate homes and commercial buildings better, as well as purchase more energy-efficient equipment.

Reducing gas in energy production, industry, households

In the broader European context, other countries are likely to reach for similar resorts, explained Ben McWilliams, an energy research analyst at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

Burning coal instead of gas to generate electricity is, "from an economic perspective, the low-hanging fruit; from a climate perspective, it's obviously difficult and challenging."

Dark image of the Boxberg coal-fired power plant with towers emitting smoke and steam
A return to coal is painful for many European countries, which have made substantial progress on transitions to renewablesImage: Florian Gaertner/photothek/picture alliance

For the industrial sector, a reduction in gas translates to curtailment, namely ramping down production. "That's where you see the big economic costs and the potential recession."

Households, which make up the third largest sector for gas use, may see quick gains by turning the thermostat down and undertaking quick-fix insulation.

In terms of immediate action, politicians can "just be completely honest with people," McWilliams said.

"Explain to them already now that particularly in the winter, every molecule of gas a household is able to save, saves jobs and ultimately saves us from a recession."

Public awareness campaigns like the one in the Netherlands have also been launched in Belgium and Germany, for example. Italy is planning one imminently.

Public campaign one crucial piece

"This type of campaign can and should be replicated in Italy," said Francesca Andreolli, a researcher with Rome-based climate change think tank ECCO.

Andreolli noted that people have already been implementing energy-savings actions in response to high prices. She described how a public awareness campaign, like one many countries including Italy ran for mask-wearing and vaccination during theCOVID-19 pandemic, could emphasize economic savings and solidarity.

Person's fingers turning a heating knob
The Dutch campaign to 'turn the knob down' reduced gas use by perhaps one-fifth in the NetherlandsImage: Gregor Macak Martin/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

In an analysis of how Italy can reduce its dependency on Russian gas, ECCO described how reducing heating temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), combined with measures to reduce heat wastage and working from home, could provide potential energy savings of 15% compared to current use.

For the summer, quick energy savings include limiting cooling interior temperatures to 27 degrees Celsius. Although such a policy is already in place for public buildings, ECCO is calling for it to be applied to all buildings, public as well as private.

Longer-term measures include replacing gas boilers with heat pumps and ramping up renewables in the energy mix; the Netherlands has long had such programs underway, which had set the stage for its successful reduction in energy use.

On the public campaign in the Netherlands, Peters pointed out that such efforts are most effective "when they induce a structural behavioral change for long term."

Eliminate harmful subsidies and address energy poverty

Andreolli also pointed out problems with a reduction in VAT, or value-added tax, on gas from 22% to 5%, which the Italian government implemented in October 2021 and then extended through the third quarter of 2022.

"In the end, it's a subsidy for wealthy people who consume more than lower-income households," she said.

Little girl and boy at a table while mother and father cook in the kitchen behind them
Some experts make the criticism that reducing VAT on fuel is a regressive tax that helps rich families more than poorImage: Eric Audras/photononstop/picture-alliance

Indeed, there is a shadow side to reduced energy consumption, namely that it unveils energy poverty, added Peters.

"Did people start to suffer from lower temperatures because they couldn't pay for the energy?" he said, pointing to a problematic finding in a TNO study that about 8% of households spent more than a tenth of their income on energy, an indication of energy poverty.

In both the Netherlands and Italy, as well as in other countries, governments have been providing targeted rebates to lower-income households. Such policies are crucial to protecting those particularly vulnerable in the looming energy crisis, experts agree.

Winter is coming

Europe-wide, there seems to be a consensus that measures like ramping coal use back up — or even Germany pushing back its nuclear phaseout, scheduled to be completed this year — are all on the table, despite the pain they cause in reversing progress on the EU's ongoing energy transition.

Sunflower in front of wind turbine and coal plant infrastructure
Ramping up renewable energies like solar and wind is a longer-term solution to breaking free from Russian gasImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

And indeed, perhaps the moment for energy savings has come. On Wednesday, as the EU moved from an "early warning" to "alert" stage on energy, the European Commission released emergency plans to immediately reduce gas demand by 15% in the EU.

The policy proposal, with the self-explanatory title "Save Gas For a Safe Winter," showed that in addition to promoting enhanced usage monitoring, the Commission believes all public buildings should be required to stick to temperature limits for heating and cooling.

Full disruption of Russian gas supply could result in the EU falling short of its 80% target for winter storage of gas, a leaked draft of the paper found, instead landing "as low as 65% to 71%."

ShouldPutin turn the Nord Stream 1 tap off again, even gas-dependent countries will be fine for now, as they have for the most part managed to secure other sources, including liquid natural gas, to cover present consumption. But not having topped off gas storage reserves presents a major problem for winter.

"I find that we're all too complacent in Europe and we don't really prepare," said McWilliams.

Making some sacrifices in summer could go some distance to preparing for a cold winter in Europe, he added.

"We need to take the situation seriously and do everything we can to reduce gas demand to get ready."

Edited by: Jon Shelton

This article has been updated to reflect how gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline restarted on July 21, 2022.