Will there be cucumbers at Christmas?

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet

This question illustrates how dependent our economy is on fossil fuels, especially gas. Greenhouses in the Netherlands use a lot of gas, as well as electricity, to produce cucumbers all year round. It is now possible that exorbitant energy prices will turn this familiar vegetable into a luxury product. Fortunately, potatoes don’t grow in greenhouses, so we can still have Chips. But potatoes need fertiliser, so they need fossil fuels, so…

We have only just entered autumn and energy prices are already making the headlines and being discussed at the highest level. This week, during the informal European Council of Heads of State, the President Charles Michel, tried to avoid this issue becoming the only subject during dinner, but to no avail… There is an urgent need to find immediate solutions, as social stability is not guaranteed. A plenary session of the European Parliament was devoted to this issue and all political groups are questioning the policies in place. Spanish Socialist MEP Iratxe García Pérez drew parallels with the management of vaccines at European level and the absolute necessity of having a common geopolitical response for our suppliers. Romanian Conservative MEP Siegfried Mureșan proposes a strengthening of the Social Climate Fund, put on the table by the Commission as part of the extension of the CO2 emissions trading directive.

The storm on the markets is accompanied by a media avalanche of new concepts, such as the energy shield (an emergency measure of the French government) and false information (“We will replenish stocks and prices will return to normal”; or “The exorbitant prices are due to the production costs of renewable energies.”), that made a lot of noise, and seriously undermines the understanding of the issues at stakes. 

There is, however, consensus on the inability of the markets, as currently structured, to provide affordable, decarbonised energy.

In summary, the current rules prevent us from: 

  • Rapidly decarbonising the energy sector,
  • Ensuring security of supply,
  • Reducing fuel poverty,
  • Making energy affordable for ALL economic actors

It is true that it is not easy to think rationally when you are in the middle of the storm. But it is also true that we will not be able to just adapt the rules of the market at the margin to make the energy system work better. Even the Financial Times says so! The energy system does not undergo stress tests like banks do, and while regulators play a major role in making the market work, there is little they can do in the face of geopolitical conflict or capricious weather. However, there are solutions, not to predict the unpredictable, but to considerably increase the share of the predictable: reducing our needs and producing from renewable resources.

Reducing our needs: typically, through building renovation policies, and a little less typically, our modes of transport. There is still so much to do, and we have the know-how, but the implementation requires planning and resources.

Above all, we need to think in terms of “needs” instead of “wants”. And in market policies, nothing is done to curb the “wants”! On the contrary, wants are transformed into needs. To go beyond this thinking, we should put the sobriety of our lifestyles and our organisations at the heart of the debate, and at the heart of the transformation of energy systems. However, the concept is a political dead letter at the moment: it is not present in any of the European Commission’s 2050 scenarios, and it is even difficult to translate. One of the best attempts to explain sobriety was found in a series of reports on the subject in the French magazine Reporterre: “Sobriety is rebalancing”. Paying less for real needs and more for the superfluous.

One question remains: are cucumbers at Christmas a necessity or a luxury?