It is hard to fully anticipate how Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine will change the world – but the potential for both great suffering and great transformation are embedded in the moment. Things on the ground are developing fast and the risks of an international escalation in violence are real. The plight of the Ukrainian people, and needless suffering and destruction caused by the invasion, has dominated headlines, TV and timelines. So much so, that the latest IPCC report setting out the dire climate impacts that communities around the world are already experiencing today – and will continue to face in increasing frequency and severity – barely registered with the media and public.
This is ironic, because not only has the conflict heightened the risk of an all-out confrontation between the largest nuclear powers, it has also focused the world’s attention on the root cause of the climate crisis. The Ukrainian IPCC scientist, Svitlana Krakovska, had it when she said that “human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots – fossil fuels – and our dependence on them.” The International Energy Agency (IEA) have weighed in too to provide immediate guidance for European households to cut their gas usage. As part of a ten point plan, the IEA calls for a rapid deployment of wind and solar energy, no new gas contracts with Russia, and a temporary thermostat reduction of 1°C by all households, which alone would reduce gas use by approximately 10 billion cubic metres within a year. Other heating experts are calling for households with gas boilers to lower the flow temperature of the boiler – the temperature at which the boiler sends water through the radiators – that can cut bills by six to eight percent.
The acknowledgement that European – and to a lesser extent British – dependence on Russian gas has both enriched and emboldened Putin’s war machine is set to transform global and domestic energy policy, while turning concepts of energy security and resilience on their head. The invasion of Ukraine creates tailwinds that will define energy policy for decades. Germany, for instance, has announced this week that it intends to reach 100% renewable energy by 2035 to shake off its reliance on Russian gas, which could mark a potential tipping point in the energy transition across the European continent. Commenting on the announcement, German finance minister Christian Lindner labelled renewable energy as the “energy of freedom”.
There have been moments of dramatic energy policy shifts before in response to geopolitical conflagrations. During the 1970s, successive so-called ‘OPEC’ crises, led to planned energy rationing, rapid energy savings programmes and shrunk oil’s market share within the largest economies. And things – many of which should have already been part of low-carbon transitions – are now starting to happen at speed.
Large-scale infrastructure decisions are also being rapidly reassessed. Germany has halted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which would have doubled the capacity of gas imports into Europe and has cost $11 billion to date. The company tasked with building the pipeline has declared insolvency, while Shell – one of the principle partners – has pulled out. After much controversy, BP have sold their holding in Russian state-owned fossil fuel firm, Rosneft, which could result in BP writing off up to $25 billion in assets. Exxon too has declared its intentions to pull out of Russia, casting the Sakhalin gas project into doubt. The EU is revising its decarbonisation plans in light of what’s going on in Ukraine and intends to speed up the phasing out of Russian gas to a 40% reduction in fossil fuel usage by 2030.
While these announcements will dent the dependence on Russian gas, they will not be enough to shift European economies completely away from gas while remaining resilient in the face of future price hikes. Gas is still prevalent throughout the energy mix and, in places like the UK, is the dominant mode of heating homes. Ending our dependence on gas – and gas-exporting military aggressors – will require a total rethink of energy, housing and foreign policy: all of which are now climate policy. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of examples on how to do it.
We need to rapidly scale up the production and installation of heat pumps across Europe. Last year marked a turning point for heat pumps, which saw record breaking installations in many European countries. The energy efficiency that heat pumps provide will reduce gas use overnight, even if gas makes up a dominant role in the energy mix. Scaling up the production of heat pumps presents governments with an opportunity to build the industries of tomorrow and create good quality low carbon jobs, while forging new trade relations and value chains. There are other models that can increase installations too, such as citizen-led models, where local needs are met through local expertise. Some, such as Bill McKibben, have argued for the rapid deployment of heat pumps from the US to Europe as part of the humanitarian effort, in turn creating steady and predictable rates of demand for American manufacturers that can help drive costs down. Putin’s war has turned a heat pump installation into a patriotic act of resistance.
But the energy efficiency promises of heat pumps will not materialise without their installation being twinned with an ambitious and deep retrofitting programme, which in turn requires a rapid training programme to increase the number of skilled plumbers and fitters. Improving the insulation and efficiency of a home will dent the energy it needs to run, whether that comes from electricity or gas. In fact, even retrofitting a home with a gas boiler will still cut gas usage significantly, reducing both our dependence and our vulnerability to their prices. Across Europe, 75% of the buildings in use are classified as energy inefficient. In the UK, at least 26 million homes need to be retrofitted by 2050. A mass retrofitting programme across Europe would create thousands of jobs while reducing our dependence on gas.
Installing heat pumps and retrofitting buildings will help push gas out of buildings and keep bills down, but shedding our dependence completely will require a huge expansion of clean sources of electricity generation, storage and transmission. According to Lauri Myllyvirta of CREA, Europe would need around 800 TWh of clean electricity generation to replace all gas imports, which would require the 370 GW of wind and solar. While this might sound like a lot, this amount of wind and solar generation is less than the capacity added every two years and far less than that which China plans to bring online by 2025.
In other words, it’s doable – but caveats remain. Storage will be a challenge as each European nation embarks on its own energy transition, starting from different points, on different terrains, and shaped by a myriad of contextual factors. In this sense, going fully renewable may not deliver energy independence within a decade, as nations’ may still have to rely on their immediate neighbours for power during shortfall periods. These concerns over near-term challenges, however, are not a reason to transition incrementally, but they are a reason to bring resilience and systems-thinking to the fore of policy.
As the violence continues to unfold, we need to see concerted and immediate action by governments to reduce their dependence on Russian gas and, in the process, drain Putin’s war chest. We could actually quote the most recent IPCC report that “any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action…will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.
Crises often contain the seeds of change, and as the tailwinds from the conflict begin to take hold across the globe, it’s possible that the conflict and sky-high fossil fuel prices could stimulate a ‘snap forward’ in terms of the energy transition. No longer is it climatic concerns that will drive the energy transition: it is energy security and resilience. Now we need to see funding, regulations, incentives, tax breaks, skills and training programmes rolled out to cut costs, create jobs, cut gas imports, clear the air, improve public health and reduce emissions at the rate required. That’s what treating a crisis like a crisis looks like.
Teaser photo credit: Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash