Harsh Winter Could Force Europe to Ration Gas, Global Energy Leader Warns

Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, said Tuesday that he was warning leaders in Europe to create backup plans in case harsh winter weather forced countries to conserve natural gas.

“I’m afraid that I cannot exclude the risk this winter that we are facing a rationing of gas,” Mr. Birol said during an interview at the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of global business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. “I’m advising several European governments to prepare a contingency plan.”

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia provided nearly 40 percent of the European Union’s gas supply, and 55 percent of Germany’s. “Europe is paying for its over-dependence on Russian energy,” Mr. Birol said.

Planning by the European Union to declare an embargo of oil from Russia, which is the world’s third-largest producer of crude, has met stiff resistance from Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. A gas embargo has so far been taken off the table.

German leaders, in particular, have warned that an immediate cutoff of gas would catapult their country’s economy — the largest in Europe — into a recession.

A gas embargo would force some industrial sites to shut down, Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice chancellor and economy minister, said in an interview on Monday.

“We always have to think about whether the steps we are taking are doing more harm to Putin or to ourselves,” he said, referring to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. “If there is a worldwide recession or a recession in Germany, who will help Ukraine then?”

A mild winter in Europe would reduce global demand for gas, as would continued Covid-related lockdowns in China, which is the world’s largest consumer of gas.

Mr. Birol urged leaders to step up their efforts to promote energy conservation. Simple steps such as turning down thermostats by a few degrees would save a significant amount of gas, as would renovating buildings to make them more energy efficient, he added.

Frans Timmermans, a European Commission official leading green energy initiatives, echoed those sentiments on Tuesday at an energy panel at Davos.

Given that Russia can no longer be relied on to provide fossil fuel, Mr. Timmermans said, “we need to do much better on energy savings.”

Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Somini Sengupta contributed reporting.