Will the Russia/Ukraine crisis stimulate the transition into renewables?
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the world’s dangerous dependency on Russian oil and gas, making way for the opportunity to transition to renewables.
The crisis has proven that overreliance on Russia’s resources poses a threat to international freedom, security, and economies, with Germany being a prime example. In 2021, at least half of Germany’s gas and coal came from Russia, with the $11 billion offshore natural gas pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, consolidating the partnership between the two countries. Thus, Germany’s recent sanctions imposed on Russia, including the delay of the pipeline project, will prove an obvious blow to Germany’s own economy.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has acted as a catalyst, spurring diversification of energy supplies, with an obvious focus on renewables. However, the question as to whether all countries will be able to take this opportunity to end Russian reliance on fuel in favour of cleaner energy supplies still remains.
Worries of the resurgence of coal are arising as fossil fuel prices soar and supplies dwindle. France’s power plants are burning more coal temporarily; Germany has warned of a delay in its phase-out of coal; and Italy has proposed the reviving of decommissioned coal plants. These lapses in focus from decarbonisation threaten the EU’s proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.
It seems as though the war has temporarily stunted countries’ ability for green innovation, with Germany focusing on increasing its Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) supply to combat reliance on Russian oil and gas. At face value, the investment in Liquified Natural Gas (from suppliers including US, Australia and Qatar) seems inoffensive, merely a fuel alternative to Russian gas. In fact, the fuel is often described as a transition fuel – a bridge to renewables, which when burnt emits around half of the carbon dioxide emissions of black coal.
However, use of the fuel should be approached with caution. Ted Nace, founder and Executive Director of Global Energy Monitor, claims that the possible tripling of global LNG capacity risks releasing “decades of emissions” of methane and “difficult-to-monitor” greenhouse gas. In a hurried attempt to fill the void left in the absence of Russian oil and gas, it seems as though countries will be forced to rely on dirtier fuels such as LNG (or even coal). The reason for this can be reduced to two factors : the first that renewable options are not yet developed enough to withstand the scale and demand they are required at, while the other being the expense of renewables and the subsequent strain they would impose on economies. Therefore, although countries are making an effort to abandon Russian resources, the urgency with which this transition is needed leaves little room for further renewable investment – at least in the short term.
Long term progress seems to be a different story. Although the transition to renewables might not yet be feasible for many countries, the Russia/Ukraine crisis has provided an obvious incentive to strive for decarbonisation. Not only does the climate crisis remain at the forefront of our minds, but as the deputy director of the Centre for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Michael Mehlingstates, investment in renewables holds a “strategic imperative of becoming energy independent with locally available [resources].” The heightened awareness of this option is invaluable, particularly in light of the pursuit of net zero by 2050.
In fact, acceleration of plans to transition towards renewables has already begun, with the European Commission planning to replace 24 billion cubic metres (bcm) of Russian gas with zero-emissions renewable energy sources this year. Measures include electrifying transportation, with the hope of electric vehicles becoming a cheaper alternative to conventional motors by 2027. Another exciting advancement includes the international deal between Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forest, owner of green hydrogen company Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) and E.ON (energy network and infrastructure operator). FFI is set to deliver up to five million tonnes per annum of Australian green hydrogen (GH2) to Europe by 2030, equating to one third of Germany’s calorific energy imports from Russia.
The answer remains clear: although we might experience a temporary regression in the use of green energy, the awareness the Russia/Ukraine crisis has given to the importance of developing renewable alternatives will only accelerate the transition.