Has war in Ukraine accelerated the shift to clean energy?
Energy suppliers in the UK went bankrupt as wholesale gas prices soared; China had blackouts as the price of coal surged; factories making artificial fertiliser shut down – even before the invasion of Ukraine, the vulnerabilities created by the world’s reliance on fossil fuels were clear.
Putin’s war underlined the point that an autocratic state was the spigot for much of Europe’s oil and gas. Conversely, as the German finance minister Christian Lindner put it a few days after the invasion began: “Renewable energies are the energies of freedom.”
In a few weeks, Germany hosts a G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps that will be dominated by the challenge of squaring high energy prices and the cost of living crisis with the need to decarbonise rapidly this decade.
War has transformed Europe’s energy trading relationship with Russia, with a ban on Russian oil imports by sea and plans to slash imports of Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of this year. But if Russian fossil fuels are simply being replaced by gas or, worse, coal from elsewhere, what has the conflict in Ukraine meant for the transition to net zero?
In Europe. Here at least, the war is having a galvanising effect. Last month, the European Commission outlined the REPowerEU plan to accelerate the shift to green energy. This includes
- energy efficiency measures;
- mandating solar panels on new residential buildings; and
- making it easier to install wind and solar farms.
“It’s a step change in ambition,” said Murray Douglas, European gas research director at the consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “They are trying to tackle some of the planning issues. There’s confidence now that Europe will be in a much better place by 2030 than it otherwise would have been.”
Worldwide. The global ripples from the Ukraine crisis are harder to decipher:
- Gas and coal. Europe’s turn away from Russia means it’s pulling in cargoes of liquefied natural gas that would have been destined for Asia in normal times.
As China emerges from its economic slowdown, it will try to acquire more LNG. “There’s a question of how much China will stretch on the price front,” Douglas said, suggesting China would turn to a cheaper, dirtier option. “Most markets, to alleviate pressure on gas, will burn more coal in the near term.”
- Bridging and renewables. No other market is as reliant on Russia as Europe. But plenty of other countries are watching the crisis and drawing conclusions about the risks of needing an energy supply controlled by Moscow. Jasbir Basi of the advisory firm Global Counsel points to growing political momentum around the shift to clean energy including the green surge in Australia’s recent elections and a decision by G7 energy and environment ministers to end public financing of overseas fossil fuels projects by the end of this year.
“The challenge Ukraine throws into sharp relief is: what does the transition look like?” Basi says. “What is the bridging fuel? How to do that at a greater pace than might otherwise have happened?”
The roots of both crises are tangled together, says Dr Svitlana Krakovska, a climate scientist and head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons,” she told the Guardian earlier this year.
The global imperative remains the same as it was before the invasion of Ukraine: this is the critical decade to decarbonise. But even the UK, which has made deep cuts to emissions over the last thirty years, remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels to heat homes, fuel cars and generate power. If there were any doubts that this transition would be messy, they’ve been dispelled.
A global transition
In episode four of our myth-busting podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy, Lucy and Giles explore how every country – from China to Kenya – is going through its own transformation.
Could do better
The US Treasury has written to the World Bank to complain that it isn’t doing enough to fight climate change. The bank gives loans and grants to low- and middle-income countries but, according to a letter seen by the Financial Times, the US government, its largest shareholder, is unhappy with it for investing too much in fossil fuel projects and too little in helping countries ditch coal for cleaner energy alternatives. It’s asked the bank to spend more on climate adaptation and to set specific and ambitious targets to mobilise more climate finance too.
Representatives of carbon-heavy industries have been writing to European parliamentarians to urge them not to support new climate policies. MEPs are due to vote this week on measures including a ban on new combustion engine car sales from 2035 and a plan to introduce a levy on importing high-carbon products like cement and steel earlier than previously agreed. According to Reuters, MEPs have been inundated with messages from lobbyists, including a group of 50 steel CEOs, who signed a letter urging parliamentarians to avoid scaling back the existing system of tariffs, rather than expand it at an earlier date.
Snow more snow
Climate change has significantly reduced snow cover in the European Alps since the 1980s, scientists using remote sensing technology have found. At high altitudes, above the tree line, more vegetation is growing and less snow settling. The increase in plant matter could help sequester more carbon, but thawing permafrost, reduced albedo (when snow reflects light back into space) and changing habitats means the trend of snow loss is, overall, worrisome – not least because compacted snow is what replenishes glacial ice.
Nuclear power is a key part of the UK government’s plan both to decarbonise and secure energy supplies that don’t depend on Putin. The government recently launched a £120 million fund to develop new projects – including small modular reactors (SMRs), which are often said to be cheaper and able to start generating energy more quickly. A new study says the downside is that SMRs are less efficient, leaking more neutrons from their core than larger reactors, and producing higher volumes of waste per unit of power.
Thanks for reading.
Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday.
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