Ukraine’s energy system: principles for post-war reconstruction

October 28, 2022

Ukrainian socialists hosted an on line discussion on “Energy Crisis and Sustainability: lessons of the Russo-Ukrainian war” on 22 October. You can watch a recording on youtube here in English, or here in Ukrainian. The panel of speakers included Ukrainian climate policy researcher Maryna Larina; Leszek Karlik of the Energy Policy Group of Razem, the Polish left party; and Christian Zeller of the University of Salzburg; and me.

The event was part of an on-line conference on Reconstruction and Justice in Post-War Ukraine, hosted by the editors of the socialist journal Spilne (Commons). Recordings of all the sessions are now up on line, and well worth viewing.

Here’s the text of my talk. At the end I have added some comments on the discussion, and some links to further reading. I look forward to the continuation of our discussion. Simon Pirani.


I have not been to Ukraine since the invasion in February, and I only understand the difficulties people face at second hand. Furthermore, it is difficult for all of us to talk about post-war reconstruction when the war is raging. Every day this means not only deaths and injuries, but also the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including power stations and boiler houses. 

Delegates from the Independent Miners Union of Chervonohrad delivering food, medicines and other aid to front-line communities last week. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine twitter feed

This winter, Ukrainians will not only be trying to protect themselves from bombs and bullets, but also trying to stay warm and healthy in the face of disruptions to gas, heat and electricity supplies. [This month, Russian bombing has focused on civilian infrastructure, putting one third of power stations out of action and forcing widespread power cuts as winter temperatures set in.]

But even under these circumstances, discussion has begun about post-war reconstruction, in the first place between the Ukrainian government and European governments at the Lugano conference in July. They are making plans for the long term.

The labour movement, and social movements, need an approach to these issues that takes the side of working people and of society, as opposed to economic or political elites. I am going to suggest four principles that can help develop such an approach.

1. Energy should be supplied mainly from renewable sources.

Society internationally needs an energy transition – that is, a transition to a system without fossil fuels, centred on electricity networks, with the electricity generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind and wave power. In Ukraine, there is also some potential for biofuels made from agricultural waste.

I am sure everyone present knows why this is: because global heating could seriously damage human society, and the chief cause of global heating is the burning of fossil fuels.

For the last 30 years, the world’s most powerful governments have gone to great lengths to delay the energy transition while simultaneously pretending to deal with the problem.

The labour movement and social movements need to advocate a transition that serves the interests of society, not capital.

Two points to make about Ukraine specifically.

a. Coal has historically been central, in the Donbas in particular. Coal use has been falling since 2016, mainly due to Russian military aggression. Now, political forces in the Donbas are discussing a future without coal. For example in the recent open letter by the Mayors of Myrnohrad, Chervonohrad and other towns (here in Ukrainian, here in English). I hope that the labour movement and social movements will engage in this discussion.

b. Gas has also played a key role. The government has sought to reduce dependence on Russian gas, and there have been no direct imports since 2015. However, in Ukraine, as elsewhere, gas companies make the false argument that gas is part of the solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, because it produces energy with fewer emissions than coal. Actually, it’s part of the problem. The energy transition means moving away from gas.

2. It is in society’s interests to cut the flow of energy through technological systems.

To understand this, we should, first, forget the idea of “energy demand”. People do not want “energy”. They want the things that it provides – heat, light, electricity to run computers, the ability to travel from place to place, and so on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Europe’s imperial plunder of African gas, masquerading as climate action

August 24, 2022

By Simon Pirani. Reposted, with thanks, from Truthout

Food and fuel prices are soaring globally, and the Russian oil and gas supply has been squeezed since the invasion of Ukraine. In response, European governments are paving the way to massive investments in fossil fuels from non-Russian sources that imperil efforts to tackle climate change.

Policies are being made to suit fossil fuel companies, who see Russia’s war in Ukraine as an opportunity to expand production elsewhere.

Protest against the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) by Hilda Flavia Nakabuye of Fridays for Future Uganda

Governments are missing opportunities to cut oil and gas use by managing demand — by insulating homes and shifting from car-based urban transport systems, for example — and speeding the shift to electricity generation from solar and wind power.

Governmental failures in the face of the climate crisis, exemplified by scorching summer temperatures and drought, are matched by inadequate responses to economic crises. Inflation and recession are combining to threaten hundreds of millions of people’s livelihoods. Resistance to these attacks is growing. Here in the UK, a wave of strikes seems likely to become the biggest in decades.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ending Europe’s gas addiction: an Earthcare fieldcast

May 25, 2022

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN. On one hand climate scientists point out that the use of methane gas must be phased out; on the other, millions of people are suffering from rising gas prices. How does Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Germany’s suspension of the NordStream 2 pipeline from Russia, change this terrain? And is it possible to transition away from gas without an explosion in energy poverty – or a planned decrease in energy use? Simon Pirani (who writes this blog) and Oliver Bugge Hunt, who is researching the politics of pipelines at the University of Copenhagen, talked about this on an Earthcare fieldcast. 25 May 2022. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN.

■ See also on Open Democracy: Goodbye Russian gas, hello rapid decarbonisation, by Simon Pirani

A gas processing plant in Russia

Two enemies, one fight: climate disaster and frightful energy bills

May 16, 2022

Two clouds darken the sky. A close-up one: gas and electricity bills have shot up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and millions of families are struggling to pay. And a bigger, darker, higher one: the climate disaster, and politicians’ refusal to tackle it.

Ultimately, both these threats have a single cause: fossil fuels and the systems of wealth and power that depend on them. We need social movements to link the fight to protect families from unaffordable bills with the fight to move beyond fossil fuels, and in that way turn back global warming.

Here I suggest ways to develop such a movement in the UK, starting by demanding action on home heating.

Two linked crises

Since the government lifted the price cap on energy bills on 1 April, the average energy bill for 18 million households on standard tariffs rose to £1971 per year, from £1277. Another 4.5 million households on pre-payment schemes are paying an average of £2017 per year. And in October, bills could well rise above £3000.

There are now 6.3 million UK households (including 2.5 million with children) in fuel poverty, meaning that they are unable to heat their home to an adequate temperature. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition says that could rise to 8.5 million by the end of this year.

The main fuels for UK homes are gas, and electricity produced from gas and nuclear power. Retail prices have been driven up by a rise in gas, oil and coal prices on world markets – which started rising last year, as economies recovered from the pandemic, but shot upwards faster from March, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war, and sanctions on Russia by western powers, could keep fossil fuel prices high for years. They have also driven global food prices upwards. This is the biggest bout of inflation worldwide since the 1970s.

Read the rest of this entry »

The UK government’s Net Zero Strategy just does not add up

November 29, 2021

The UK government claims, extravagantly, that it is aiming for “net zero”. But the devil is in the detail. Here, PETER SOMERVILLE goes through the government’s Net Zero Strategy with a fine-toothed comb – and shows how its promises are exaggerated and its numbers don’t add up. It falls to pieces in your hands

When government ministers published their Ten Point Plan a year ago, they recognised that it did not go far enough to fulfil their international commitment to reducing carbon emissions. One year on, their Net Zero Strategy (NZS) goes a little further, but still falls far short of what is required. The problems inherent in the original plan persist, namely:

  • A failure to recognise that the world is now experiencing a climate emergency, and therefore that more drastic action is required in the short term (before 2025) to reduce carbon emissions. The reductions up to 2025 are minimal (page 18, Fig 1, or p. 77, Fig 13. Note: all page numbers in this article refer to the Net Zero Strategy, unless stated otherwise.)
  • A continuing (and increasing) reliance on problematic technologies that do not currently exist at scale, particularly carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS), and direct air carbon capture.
  • A failure to explain clearly how expected future carbon savings have been calculated, particularly in industry, buildings and transport.
  • A neglect of issues relating to agriculture, food, land use and energy storage.
  • An emphasis on constructing new nuclear power plants, with a new (from 2022) Future Nuclear Enabling Fund of £120 million, but – as the UK FIRES commentary on the government’s plan shows – with no net increase in nuclear power capacity likely until after 2030. In the meantime, construction work adds significantly to carbon emissions.
  • An emphasis on GDP growth, despite the strong correlation between such growth and increasing carbon emissions.
  • A lack of clarity about how specific policies could achieve intended emission reductions, e.g. on hydrogen.
  • A failure to curb the expansion of aviation to 2030 and beyond (an expansion that is encouraged rather than hindered by the latest spending review’s decision to cut air passenger duty).
  • A failure to take account of other government programmes that increase rather than reduce emissions, e.g. increased spending on roads (£27 billion) and defence (£24 billion) up to 2024.
London demonstration, 6 November

The government has already committed to invest £25.5 billion for a Green Industrial Revolution (£12 billion under the Ten Point Plan, £9.7 billion for 18 deals at the Global Investment Summit in October 2021, and £5.8 billion on other sustainable projects since the Ten Point Plan). Together with £40 billion for the new UK Infrastructure Bank (p. 206), and leveraging £90 billion of private investment, this funding is expected to support 440,000 jobs in 2030 (pp. 16, 17 and 49).

The NZS describes three future scenarios, but arguably only Scenario 1 (high electrification) is really worth considering.

□ Even Scenario 1 has serious limitations. For example, as with the other scenarios, it takes no direct account of uncertainty about future technology costs and availability (p. 316). So much for the precautionary principle, one might argue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jet Zero and the politics of the technofix

September 9, 2021

An investigation by GARETH DALE and JOSH MOOS of the UK government’s “Jet Zero” policy for aviation. It first appeared in the Ecologist, and is republished here with thanks  

In the brave new geography of heat domes, torrential floods and woodland infernos, old-style climate denialism is as good as dead. From the ashes, we see its resurrection in new, sustainable-branded forms.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK government’s Jet Zero consultation, due to conclude this month. The wager is that aviation can be massively expanded even as its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions taper to zero.

In researching this essay, we read the government’s Jet Zero documents and interviewed aviation industry insiders and spokespeople. We found that of the three key terms – jet, zero, and consultation – two are misleading to the point of outright deception.

What struck us first is the scope of the so-called consultation that informed the Jet Zero documents. It has centred on a wilfully naïve borrowing of promises from the aviation sector, in particular the industry organisation Sustainable Aviation, mediated through government-industry partnership bodies.

A protest against the expansion of Leipzig Halle Cargo Airport in Germany, by campaigners for action on climate change. Photo from Stay Grounded

Largely frozen out are climate scientists and the environmental groups and NGOs that seek to protect the interests of Earth and its inhabitants. The government has even ignored a key recommendation of its own advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), that continued expansion of the aviation industry is, under all scenarios of technological advance, incompatible with its 2050 net zero target.

The aviation industry’s principal goal, its own continued growth, has been adopted by the government as its own. Aviation expansion is fundamental to Britain’s future, declared the Aviation minister, Liz Sugg, in the 2018 report on The Future of UK Aviation. Airport expansion, stated a follow-up report in 2020, is indispensable to the government’s agenda of “global connectivity.”

The same document projects that by 2050, passenger miles flown will be twice the 2017 figure and six times the 1990 figure, while aviation GHG emissions in the period from 2017 to 2050 will remain constant.

Read the rest of this entry »

How the UK Climate Change Committee steals from the carbon budget

July 8, 2021

With the COP 26 international climate talks coming up in Glasgow in November, the UK government’s greenwash machine is going into overdrive.

The prime minister has set the tone with a “ten point plan” on climate – denounced as empty rhetoric by researchers (e.g. here and here) – which in turn is linked to the government’s new target, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% of 1990 levels by 2035.

That target is linked to the sixth carbon budget for 2033-37, proposed by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) that advises the government.

The CCC has warned that the government is on track to miss the targets for fourth budget (2023-27) and the fifth budget (2028-32), and often made valid proposals for decarbonisation measures. For this it has been praised by Labour politicians, some environmentalist organisations and some climate scientists. 

But looking coherent, compared to the government, is a very low bar to jump over. The CCC’s carbon budgets are not a realistic guide to the UK playing its part in tackling climate change – and are used by government ministers and other politicians to obstruct and delay effective action.

The way the CCC budgets are calculated would allow the UK economy to emit at least twice as much greenhouse gas as any amount that could possibly be described as its fair share.

In the article below, and a linked article on how a UK carbon budget could be set, Peter Somerville explains why.

To preface Peter’s arguments, here are a few words about what carbon budgets are, and why they matter.

The global carbon budget from 1800 onwards (with a view to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees) as a bucket, which is nearly full. A graphic by the Global Carbon Project

Global carbon budgets are measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide that scientists estimate can be put into the atmosphere, before global warming breaks certain barriers. The budgets are often stated in gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (GtCO2). The barriers are usually stated as global average temperatures, measured in degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

Global carbon budgets are the products of scientific research. There are some good visualisations on the Global Carbon Project web site (go here and scroll down to “The carbon budget for 1.5°” and “Remaining carbon budget to 1.5° and 2°”).

■ In reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the budgets are set out in tables that provide scientists’ best estimates of the remaining carbon budget available, to keep global temperatures to certain levels. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees, published in 2018, said that, to limit warming since 1850-1900 to 1.5°, the remaining global carbon budget is 840 GtCO2, for a 33% chance of hitting the target; 580 GtCO2 for a 50% chance; and 420 GtCO2 for a 67% chance. The scientists also provided estimates for a range of other temperatures and likelihoods. You can see the key table (Table 2.2 in chapter 2) here.  

There are uncertainties in climate science. These figures shift, as research teams refine their estimates. In the IPCC sixth assessment report, due out next year, the budgets are likely to be smaller than in previous reports.

Carbon budgets deal with CO2 emissions, that account for about three-quarters of the global warming effect. Scientists have developed budgets for other greenhouse gases, that collectively account for the other one quarter. Methane and nitrous oxide are the most important ones.

Global carbon budgets are worked out by science, but national carbon budgets are set by politics. They reflect what countries’ politicians decide is (i) a reasonable global budget to aim at, and (ii) their country’s fair share of that budget.

The CCC takes as a starting-point scientists’ global budgets that give humanity a 50% chance of hitting the 1.5 degree target (see the Sixth Carbon Budget report, pages 367-371) – which is itself a political decision. But it is not easy to see how it does the sums.

Researchers who have done their own sums say that the CCC is allowing the UK a share of the global budget that is disproportionate, and unfair to nations of the global south – in other words, stealing from the global budget.

A key research paper by scientists at the Tyndall Centre argued last year that the UK’s carbon budget for the rest of this century should be no more than half the figure the CCC is working with – that is, carbon emissions cuts have to be twice as stringent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Calculating a fair carbon budget for the UK

July 8, 2021

Here PETER SOMERVILLE provides more detail on how a UK carbon budget could be set, and discusses some problems with the Climate Change Committee (CCC) budgets. This is the second of two articles, the first is this overview of the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget  

Download these articles on carbon budgets, as a pdf

A global carbon budget is the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions that human activities across the world can be allowed to generate, in order to avoid excessive global warming.

Budgets vary, according to the degrees of temperature increase that are judged to be allowable, and according to how sensitive the climate is judged to be in response to carbon emissions: the greater the sensitivity, the smaller the budget has to be.

School students’ climate protest, 2019

Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how sensitive the climate is to carbon emissions, so budgets are calculated across the range of possible sensitivities.

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees provided a range of figures for the remaining global carbon budget in 2018 (Table 2.2 on page 108).

On the basis of the median climate sensitivity, the budget to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was stated as 580 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (580 GtCO2). That means the world has a mere 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5°C.

Arguably, however, a higher level of climate sensitivity is required, to give the world at least a 66% chance of reaching the 1.5°C target. At this level, the carbon budget in 2018 was 420 GtCO2.

All economic and other human activity in the world currently emits approximately 40 GtCO2 per year, so the remaining budget today in 2021 is closer to 300 GtCO2. At this rate the budget would be fully spent before 2029.

The task here is then to calculate what might count as a fair share of this budget to be allocated to the UK.

The first problem is that the global budget is for carbon dioxide only: other greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as methane and nitrous oxide are calculated separately.

Methane has minimal long-term effect on the climate, but it is a powerful greenhouse gas in the short-term, which needs to be reduced to zero as soon as possible in order to minimise its contribution to peak warming (see CCC Sixth Carbon Budget report, page 372). Arguably, therefore, a fair carbon budget for the UK should take account of all GHGs.

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: