The Ukraine-Russia War and its Effects on the Transition to Renewable Energy

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The war between Russia and Ukraine has massively disrupted energy markets in Europe and throughout the world and has shaken up Europe’s plan to transition to renewable energy. Before the start of the war, the world was not on track to meet climate goals set out for 2050; the covid-19 pandemic, economic turbulence, and insufficient commitment and planning toward net-zero goals have put us even further behind schedule.

Russia is the biggest global exporter of oil, and Europe has largely depended on Russia for its oil and gas. In 2019, 40% of Europe’s gas and more than ¼ of its oil came from Russia (Tollefson). The EU had been expecting to rely on Russian energy while transitioning to greener systems. However, As of May 31, the EU decided to cease all oil imports coming from Russia by sea. This embargo does not include oil brought into Hungary by pipeline. Hungary was opposed to a total ban as it is extremely dependent on Russian fossil fuels; 65% of its oil and 85% of its gas coming from Russia (Meredith, 2022). In March, Germany halted approval of Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline connecting it directly to Russia.

Sustainable sources of energy are being developed, but do not, at the moment, have the capacity to replace fossil fuels completely. Several countries, like Germany, have fueled up more coal-fired plants in addition to shopping for oil and gas from other countries. Additionally, the United States is increasing domestic production of fossil fuels, partially to help Europe’s diversification plan and partially to reduce rising fuel prices at home. Biden’s administration may permit an enormous new oil drilling operation in Alaska to try to alleviate the economic pain. This could be worrisome as The International Energy Agency (IEA) has said that we cannot invest in new fossil fuel projects if we want to stay below the 1.5-degree threshold, after which point the earth becomes vulnerable to climate “tipping” points, which are small changes that can result in huge environmental shifts.

Some argue the conflict may result in an expedited transition. EU countries have increased investment in and focus on sustainable energy projects. The EU Commission has developed a plan called REPowerEU, which aims to eliminate the union’s dependence on fossil fuels from Russia. The plan will ramp up investment in the green transition, spending 210 billion euros by 2027 on strengthening renewable energy infrastructure, according to the EU Commission. Key elements of the plan include diversifying energy sources and common purchasing for all member states of gas, LNG and hydrogen; rapid roll out of solar and wind energy projects; rapid approval of EU-wide hydrogen projects; increased communication and education on how businesses and individuals can save energy; and development of contingency plans to preserve affordable energy for citizens when demand increases. As the war between Russia and Ukraine has continued, four of the largest political groups in the EU Parliament have backed a proposal for a 14.5% efficiency target for the EU by 2030 (the target was originally set at 9% last year). The goal is to further ease the current energy crisis and reduce dependency on Russia.

However, the EU Commission also voted to label natural gas and nuclear energy as “green” investments as a response to the fuel crisis resulting from the war. This frees up billions of dollars in green investment funds to begin gas production and extraction projects. While gas definitely emits less CO2 than burning coal, it does contribute to global warming - much more so than wind or solar. The policy’s many critics argue that this will divert resources from renewable investments and possibly derail the EU’s plan to meet its climate goals.

However, current geopolitics may not result in swifter energy transitions outside of the West. Russia itself is a large emitter of fossil fuels and could be unlikely to curb its emissions if isolated from global pressure. If more LNG is flowing to Europe, that means less for developing economies. Thus, China and other Asian countries are in the process of ramping up coal production, which is cheaper, but less regulated and more damaging to the environment.

Additionally, global supply-chain issues stemming from the covid-19 pandemic have been exacerbated by the Ukraine-Russian war, which could hinder the production of technology needed for renewable energy. Global inflation and rising foreign debt could prevent governments from focusing on their own transitions, as is happening in Egypt.

It remains to be seen how the Ukraine-Russian war will affect the long-term renewable energy transition on a global scale. Despite increased burning of fossil fuels in the immediate future, this war could still be a catalyst for expansion into cleaner energy technologies.  Either way, the conflict has demonstrated the deeply interwoven relationship between geopolitics, the global free market, and the renewable energy transition.

 

Submitted by Liz Clarey

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