OpenDemocracy yesterday hosted a useful, and sobering, discussion about the war in Ukraine and the fight for climate justice, with Oleh Savitsky (Stand with Ukraine and Ukraine Climate Network), Angelina Davydova (a prominent commentator on Russian climate policy) and me.
To open, I made three points about the policy response by the governments of rich western countries that consume most of those fossil fuels.
1. Political leaders are focusing on replacing Russian oil and gas with supplies from elsewhere. This undermines all the promises made at the international climate talks.
So the UK government, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, gave the go-ahead for a new oil field, Jackdaw, operated by Shell – when we know that tackling climate change means there can be no new oil fields in rich countries.
2. The focus on supplies undermines efforts to deal with the really urgent issue, from a climate point of view – to reduce, permanently, the throughput of energy made from fossil fuels through the big technological systems that society uses.
For example: a large share of the gas consumed in Europe is used for home heating, to raise the temperature in people’s homes by a few degrees.
This is a criminal waste of resources. Simple technologies have existed for decades to heat homes differently: proper insulation, heat pumps, district heating systems and so on.
The gas shortages associated with Russia’s aggression should be tackled in the first place by ramping up these low-energy technologies.
3. The war has disrupted energy markets. That has hit millions of households in the form of gigantic rises in energy bills.
In social movements, policies to defend households from the unbearable effects of these bills, to defend those who can not pay those bills, must go hand in hand with policies to tackle the climate crisis, such as programmes of home insulation, support for public transport instead of cars, and so on. (Don’t Pay UK is taking this approach.) Simon Pirani, 22 July 2022.
Thanks for your blog, it’s breath of reasonableness in a strange world.
While I agree overall with your points, and have been frustrated for years with so many governments inaction, there is also an absolute need to backfill energy supplies for countries who have lost and/or are voluntarily reducing imports of Russian oil and gas. (There’s also a more interesting, perhaps more critical and longer horizon of reliance on Russian uranium for reactor fuels.)
Conservation is the shortest response time for constrained energy supplies, happening on the scale of instantly to months and often costing nothing. While much more energy efficient than the US, most of Europe has large scope to raise/lower thermostats, reduce lighting, drive less, take fewer airplane trips, etc. But there are also some hard limits to conservation. Some industries rely on natural gas or petroleum, for instance, and while some cutbacks may be possible, turning off steel furnaces or kilns come with heavy costs. Reduced industrial production also carries GDP costs. However, COVID has provided us with myriad lessons about adaptability, and making progress under constraints.
Much effort is being put into alternate fuel sourcing. Some of this can be managed by chartering oil tankers to different ports, and some switching of electrical grids. These efforts can take months, and aren’t necessarily instant or long term solutions. Effort is also being put into new transmission lines and pipes, docks and refineries. Those can be done optimistically in months in some cases, but more likely years. Those efforts generally require years, and your North Sea oil field example falls into a similar but worse category – that of developing new pools of fossil fuel extraction, each of which will contain their own economic logic to fully exploit the resource, in light of required investment.
Shorter term responses are also in play, in regards to the recommissioning of coal plants, as well as extending the operating lifetimes of some of Germany’s nuclear power plants. Regrettable as that may be, as well as resistant to future closures, this almost certainly must be accepted, despite their negative impacts.
I think we are all hopeful that the Russia Ukraine war will rapidly be satisfactorily concluded. This suggests a planning horizon of months to a year, though perhaps longer. Following the war, resumption of some increased level of Russian fuel supplies can be anticipated, which will obviate much of the interim investment in new fossil fuel capabilities – some of which will remain uncompleted, as lost investments.
German LNG terminals may fall into investments that can be rapidly established and made functional to contend with near term fuel limitations. I’ve yet to hear of substantial progress on that and the clock is ticking, though I believe the capacity exists to supply the gas.
What is much less supportable would be the creating of new natural gas or coal power plants, and nuclear reactors, who’s creation requires several years to a decade or longer and are saddled with most of the issues of older plants.
As you point out, plant efficiency, increased insulation and weather tightness, transition from fuel boilers to air source heat pumps, and installation of new solar and wind resources are viable in the near term, while also producing long term dividends. Much of this could be done within a six month window, while off-shore wind generally requires a 2-5 year horizon. While I am aware of great enthusiasm in some quarters for this, I’ve yet to hear of a funded crash program to get it up and running in the near term. Too much of plant efficiency seems firmly anchored to depreciation schedules.
Failure to move rapidly to accomplish these things means that Russia is still at liberty to exert fuel supply as weapon of economic, political and kinetic war, Russia continues to profit mightily from hydrocarbon supply constraints it has largely manufactured, European governments feel constrained in their response to Russian aggression, and Europeans remain at significant risk of harms from constrained fuel availability. Failure to act will mean that these risks may persist well after the conclusion of hostilities.