By Yennah Smart
“Addiction to Fossil Fuels is Mutually Assured Destruction”– Antonio Guterres
Why must it take a political disaster for governments to take environmental action? Is climate change not enough of a concern on its own, must there be a strategic imperative? With conflict over fossil fuels a by-product of the war in Ukraine, how will countries across the world respond to the need to look for alternative energy sources?
Groundhog Day in Europe
On the same day that Covid-19 isolation rules in the UK were scrapped, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since February 24th, the daily coronavirus updates which dominated the headlines have been replaced by a relentless stream of updates detailing the attacks, threats, bombings, battles and war crimes happening in Eastern Europe. Just as we have started to see the other side of a pandemic, it seems as though we are now seeing a more malicious, more unsettling, and more horrific reality unfold.
One of the principal questions being asked by students and protestors, including Ukrainians themselves, is why other countries aren’t doing more to stop Russia. The rhetoric after the two world wars of the twentieth century has always been ‘Never Again’ and ‘History Must Learn’. So why, when we have seen this happen countless times across history, are the same patterns emerging, threatening the peace of “mutually assured destruction” across the world?
It was both encouraging and terrifying to see Xu Guoqi, a leading Chinese historian, publish a document in collaboration with other high-profile intellectuals which likened the response to Ukraine to the way that “Europe sleep-walked” into the First World War, over one hundred years ago. As I refresh the news each hour, it’s almost like some twisted kind of déjà vu, as I read familiar phrases that I remember from my time spent researching the Cold War at university.
The Terrifying Power of Russian Fossil Fuels
The world’s addiction to fossil fuels has given states like Russia that own oil and gas disproportionate political and economic power. Europe is dependent on Russian oil and gas, with 40% of the EU’s gas supply currently coming from Russia. Notably, Germany receives about half of its gas supply from Russia via pipelines and does not yet have the infrastructure to take shipments of gas from elsewhere. Last year, ClimateWatch named Russia the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with their CO2 emissions contributing to 5% of the world’s total. High demand for Russian fossil fuels has only enhanced these figures as the process of extracting and transporting these resources across the continent continues to fuel the problem.
Although the Russian Federation has committed to some strategies for renewable energy, ultimately, the decision makers are not driven by climate policy. As the largest supplier of fossil fuels to Europe, Russia has been using the money generated through selling these resources to expand its armed forces in terms of manpower and weapons. This transaction therefore not only underpins Russia’s long-term economic future, it is funding the aggression Putin is displaying to the world. Before the invasion of Ukraine, it had been convenient to overlook this consequence of cheap energy and carry out business-as-usual with Russia. Now that business can no longer be described as ‘usual’, it is impossible to leave the power of Russian fossil fuels unaddressed.
Addressing Europe’s Addiction
For many European countries, the threat of depleted supplies of gas has meant that local, sustainable energy is no longer just desirable, but increasingly a necessity. Political strength and independence are very closely linked to environmental independence. Offshore wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectricity are all types of renewable energy that would allow countries to manage and regulate their own power supplies internally. The closed circle analogy, where countries produce and use resources internally, is demonstrating itself to be the key to success in a world where environmental challenges continue to arise. We see this in the call for local economies, self-sufficiency, seasonal fruit and veg, shorter supply lines and products produced and transported within small regions. The threat of losing whole energy supplies mirrors this message, in a much bigger and more imminent way.
The need for renewable energy is not a new addition to the EU’s list of priorities. In 2021, EU legislation stated aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% before 2030. Just last month, European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, said to the European Commission that members of the EU must have at least 40% of their energy covered by renewables. She described this within the context of decarbonisation to help the effects of climate change as well as a political step towards countries becoming energy. As the crisis on the continent unfolds, we may see European countries take more immediate action in line with these aims, for the security of their people at present as well as future generations. If climate change protests and EU legislation were not enough of a motive before, perhaps national security and political power are.
We are already seeing some countries take a step in the right direction. At the start of the month, Germany announced their plan to spend $220 billion on a national industrial transformation by 2026, which includes policies on climate protection and hydrogen technology. The German Finance Minister has also been in discussions with Spain about getting supplies of electricity from them in the form of solar energy. These examples show how the long-term plans being made by European leaders will not only secure the future of their energy supplies but also accelerate the move towards a more sustainable future.
Sadly, despite this huge opportunity to go cold turkey on fossil fuels, we have seen some countries turn to arguably more dangerous alternatives. The scramble for resources has meant that some leaders are turning to coal or imports of liquefied natural gas to alleviate the energy crisis. Shell is even reconsidering its decision to abandon the development of the Cambo oilfield, a reversal which would hugely hamper efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the world. These solutions should not be seen as a simple short-term fix. Investment into coal mines will lock the world into decades of huge greenhouse gas emissions and purchasing oil from countries like Saudi Arabia will only serve to support governments who compromise the human rights of their citizens. Antonio Guterres, Head of the UN, has reinforced these concerns and warned that reactive and short-term measures may “close the window” on the goals agreed at the 2015 UN Climate Summit in Paris. As the consequences of the invasion reveal themselves, we can only hope that countries do not neglect their commitments to the climate crisis under the pressure of the imminent fossil fuel supply gap.
An Uncertain Future
We are at the brink of potentially game-changing climate action. Although the headlines depict the threat of Putin with his finger on the button labelled ‘Nuclear War’, one of Europe’s defensive moves is to push for a faster transition towards green energy. The invasion has accelerated the move into a new era of national defence and military spending, however, it may also encourage leading actors in Europe to reconsider their reliance on fossil fuels. So, despite the uncertainty of the invasion and the hurt that has happened or is soon to happen, there is still hope for positive change.
March 24th marks one month of open war in Ukraine. 2022 marks 34 years since James Hansen, an American climatologist, made one of the first assessments that determined that humans had already caused immeasurable damage to the world’s climate. As the war continues to evolve and these two threats to global order become more and more intertwined, it feels as though it could go one way or the other. The helpless reality is that, like global warming, all we can do is wait and see what outcome will come to boil first.
Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh.