Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has rewritten how we see the world.
As Vladimir Putin spills Ukrainian blood for no reason other than his own vanity, Russia has been hit by swathes of economic sanctions to deter his war. But, for many countries around the world, there’s an elephant in the room – Russia is a significant player in the world’s energy market, and reacting to this invasion necessitates moving away from Russian fuel. Nations and international bodies are rewriting their energy policies in response to the attack, but what do they intend to do?
Russia’s place as a world superpower is largely based on two major factors – its nuclear arsenal and its fossil fuel reserves (even before this conflict, it was a marginal economic power with few major allies). Despite talk of nuclear conflict, it’s really the latter issue that has troubled the West’s response to Ukraine – many European countries rely on Russian gas and oil.
According to figures from the research group, Transport & Environment, the EU gets 40% of its gas from Russia.
Yet the EU has announced plans to radically cut this reliance. The REPowerEU plan aims to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels by 2030, focusing initially on gas. It proposes finding alternative supplies in the short-term (from countries such as Norway and Azerbaijan), and transitions to greener sources of power in the long-term. It wants a legal requirement on minimum levels of gas storage, up from 30% now to 90% of capacity, and a significant increase in renewable fuels. Although the European Commission acknowledges that there may be need to use dirtier fuels in the immediate term, it anticipates that the continent will eventually turn to green hydrogen as a key fuel.
How about the UK, which only sees 4% of its natural gas come from Russia?
At the time of writing, the UK Government has yet to reveal its new energy security strategy. However, Boris Johnson said that the announcement would be coming soon: “What Putin is doing in Ukraine is causing global uncertainty and a spike in the price of oil… Next week, we’re going to be setting out the energy strategy for the UK.”Johnson had already set out plans to transition the UK to green energy by 2050 after the COP26 summit, but the events in Russia will likely accelerate these projects. The Prime Minister has indicated he is in favour of increasing the domestic supply of fossil fuels in the short-term, in order to phase out Russian oil imports by the end of the year. He suggested that there will be further investment in wind farms and solar power, and it is probable that the Government will increase support for both large- and small-scale nuclear generations. There may be financial help for low earners, OAPs and the fuel-poor, temporarily scrapping VAT on things like home insulation, with potential grants for retrofitting.
What Putin is doing in Ukraine is causing global uncertainty and a spike in the price of oil… Next week, we’re going to be setting out the energy strategy for the UK.
And then, there’s the f-word – fracking.
There is currently a moratorium on fracking, and Johnson is facing pressure on both sides of the argument to restart UK production of shale gas. The country’s only fracking wells were due to be permanently closed in a few months, but there is deadlock over these plans now – many prominent Conservative MPs have pushed to keep the wells open. However, there is still major opposition, with former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon among the voices warning against the practice. He warned that employing more fossil fuels would be a short-term political gain, and go against current progress on climate change.
Here is the balancing act at the heart of rewriting energy strategies – governments want to abide by their climate credentials, but they also need to ensure that the new fuels are sufficient and keep the costs down for their people. Leaders are already warning that this transition will not be an easy one – fuel bills will rise, probably significantly, in the near future, and the scale of investment necessary to move away from Russian fossil fuels could be unprecedented.
Putin’s actions in Ukraine have helped focus a climate revelation that has slowly been emerging these past few years – the question now is whether governments can deliver on the promises and the plans they’ve been making.