Gonzalo Escribano
Featured voices - February 09, 2023

Gonzalo Escribano

Director of the Energy and Climate Change Programme at the Elcano Royal Institute

“There has been excessive strategic short sightedness from Europe”

Gonzalo Escribano leads the Energy and Climate Change Programme at the Elcano Royal Institute. He is also a professor of Politics at the Department of Applied Economy in UNED. With a Ph. D. in Economic and Business Science from the Complutense University in Madrid, he has been visiting researcher at various universities and research centres. Currently, he lectures on energy geopolitics at post-graduate programmes at universities in Spain and abroad. In this interview with Foro Nuclear, he assures that “if there was a supply problem, the planned shutdown of Spanish nuclear power plants might be reconsidered.”

You lead the Energy and Climate Programme at the Elcano Royal Institute. What is it about, and what projects would you highlight?

This programme intends to analyse large trends and events, both in terms of energy and climate, at an international level. For instance, it analyses the implications of the current energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the last Climate Change Conference in Egypt. We perform executive analyses of international policies and the global governance of energy and climate, always from the Spanish perspective and with the intention of defending our preferences whilst improving and advancing Spain’s international projection.

What are the purposes and who are the recipients of your studies and analyses?

The purpose is the same as in any research institute or think thank: to propose ideas.

All our publications and analyses are freely available at our website; we serve all citizens. The recipients are usually policy makers and people interested in advanced dissemination as well as international issues, since we perform academic analyses with strategic and future-oriented projections. We offer non-partisan, high-level dissemination of analyses to improve the quality of foreign policies in all their dimensions, more specifically in Spain.

“At the Elcano Institute we offer non-partisan studies and analyses to improve foreign policies”

In your analyses, did you imagine this European energy crisis?

Academic analyses in many research projects and the results that have been coming up repeatedly for a long time already warned against Europe’s excess of strategic short sightedness, especially coming from some European countries with excessive dependence on Russia. All the analyses pointed to the fact that we would not be able to easily untether ourselves from Russian gas. There was also a very extended consensus among analysts and academics on the fact that, if there was a country with a clear risk of carrying out belligerent action against the European Union and instrumentalizing its energy resources, it was Russia. This was not released as a statement, but several countries had been alerted on the convenience of looking further South given their their excessive dependence on Russia.

“There is a big shortage of diversification, integration and interconnections inside the European Union”

There were alerts, but, from our point of view, the measures taken were not sufficiently firm or suitable. There is a big shortage of diversification, integration and interconnections inside the European Union.

You mentioned the importance of informing citizens on the urgency, need and convenience of saving energy. Are we conscious of this?

We need to let citizens know that governments do need to take measures, and companies must apply sustainable strategies, but as citizens we also need to adapt our own behaviour.

“As citizens we need to adapt our own behaviour and save energy to improve everyone’s energy safety”

Gonzalo Escribano Real Instituto El Cano
Director of the Energy and Climate Change Programme at the Elcano Royal Institute. Picture: Elcano Royal Institute
Gonzalo Escribano

A portion of citizens are already doing this. We are saving energy partly because electricity is very expensive and the price signals work to encourage saving. But another reason for doing this should come from solidarity and to improve everyone’s energy safety.

With every kW we do not spend we reduce Europe’s vulnerability strategically and economically. We need to turn the energy saving achieved by many European citizens into a permanent change of behaviour that becomes a habit. It is very important that this attitude of energy solidarity is maintained and encouraged by the mass media, opinion makers and politicians.

“Saving energy is very important, out of solidarity and to reduce the European vulnerability”

Do you think we will reach the ambitious climate and energy goals set by the European Union (EU)?

They are indeed ambitious goals, and they will be even more so since the reformulation of European goals makes it necessary. The energy and climate plans created in Spain were a very serious set of actions, with an important academic and technically rigorous component. It is true that these plans are ambitious, and it is hard to calibrate a strategy’s possibility of success in the next 30 years, but the plan from Spain’s PNIEC (National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan) is technically and academically rigorous.

It is ambitious, yes, but also rigorous and feasible. I also believe that having high ambition relies to economic agents that this is serious and that the process is going to require a very significant effort.

“The energy and climate plans created by Spain are serious and rigorous”

Speaking of which, in June 2023 the Spanish government and other EU governments will need to present their updated national energy and climate plans. What lines do you believe the Spanish plan will follow?

I believe it will follow the lines of what we saw in the previous plan. We already have some signals sent from the government, such as the need to update the hydrogen strategy, which implies a very important surge in capacity and thus the deployment and increase of renewable sources.

“We will likely find in the new PNIEC a higher ambition in the deployment of renewable sources”

We will likely find in the new PNIEC a higher ambition in the deployment of renewable sources. I do not think the electrification path and firm support of renewables is going to change. I believe the document will be consistent with previous formulas.

You also mentioned that the cost of not taking action is very high, and that we need to mitigate climate change. What can you say about this, and what is your opinion regarding the last Climate Summit?

It is bittersweet because we needed a bigger impulse, and we are postponing for the next Summits more and more aspects that end up accumulating. On the other hand, the European Union once again displayed its climate leadership, and in that respect we are satisfied. At this Summit it was very important for the European Union to hold on to its climate leadership and prove that, even though we are facing an energy crisis, its commitment to decarbonisation and climate goals remains firm.

In short, we made a mixed assessment because many aspects where there should have been progress have not advanced far enough, but there has been an agreement regarding losses and damages that seems quite promising. And, once again, this is thanks to the EU’s impulse and leadership.

“At the last Climate Summit, the European Union displayed its climate leadership once again”

Regarding nuclear, many EU countries are embracing this technology to avoid dependence from other countries and to reduce emissions. Do you think we are moving towards a development or continuity of nuclear along with the impulse of renewables?

I believe so, and we are already seeing this. There are countries following a more nuclear decarbonization path – France is the most paradigmatic case despite the current situation with its nuclear power plants. But there is also the United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium, where nuclear shutdown has been postponed. Without a doubt, there will be and there already are countries in Europe where the decarbonization path will include a nuclear component. You can do this in different ways: opening new nuclear power plants, not shutting down existing ones prematurely and not postponing their operating life. I believe this will highly depend on the context and specific function of nuclear in each country. France is not the same as Spain, for example.

“In Europe there are countries that embrace nuclear power in their decarbonization goal”

In the case of Spain the current government favours a tiered nuclear shutdown, although we must specify that the PNIEC indicates this will only happen if energy safety can be guaranteed.

“The PNIEC establishes a tiered nuclear shutdown as long as energy safety can be guaranteed”

In other words, if there is a supply problem the planned shutdown could be reconsidered, just as it happened in Germany and Belgium. There are harsher positions, like the anti-nuclear groups demanding to shut down all nuclear power plants tomorrow. But we cannot afford to lose 20% of our electricity tomorrow.

“We cannot afford to lose 20% of the electricity from nuclear sources overnight”

That is not part of the plan. The current government and many analysts believe that we will not need them in the future, but if they are necessary they will be there. At some point we will have to speak to the proprietary companies to prevent this and allow them to perform their own analyses. However, I do not perceive a conversation about building new nuclear power plants in our country at this moment.

Do you think society knows that 20% of Spanish electricity comes from nuclear sources and does not produce CO2 emissions?

Society is quite aware of this and has in fact made its own analysis of the cost/benefits of nuclear energy. Generally speaking, I do believe that people are aware that nuclear energy plays a role and it does not bother them that 20% of the mix is nuclear, although there is an antinuclear factor and the issue with nuclear waste bears a lot of weight on public opinion, not just in Spain but also in the rest of Europe. Apart from that, we are clearly polarized, which is one of the problems we have in Spain.

In my opinion, the nuclear debate needs a realistic and moderate narrative without any extremist discourses.

“I do believe that society is aware of the role of nuclear energy”

We would like to sign off with your experience as a university professor. What would you like to add?

I am meeting students that are highly interested in the topic of energy, due to the issues of decarbonization and sustainability. In Spain we will be needing a large workforce to carry out the energy transition in all sectors (engineers, economists, lawyers, environmentalists…) I believe it is very important that the nuclear sector communicates the importance of this workforce of highly prepared young graduates from our universities.

The nuclear sector and all sectors must be able to attract the talent of our university students and other intermediate education students because we are going to need it. We are risking the future of the next generations, and I cannot think of a better purpose for universities than preparing our society to carry out this mission in the fairest and most orderly manner.


Cover photo: Real Instituto Elcano

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