Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rocked global energy markets, sending oil and gas prices surging — and exposing the pitfalls of the world’s utter reliance on fossil fuels.
Scientists have spent decades warning about how continued fossil fuel use is driving the worsening climate crisis, most recently in a sweeping Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published last week. But now the nascent war shows how fossil fuels, and their volatile global markets, can be a national security risk, too. It’s just uncertain what happens next.
“What I think is changing is that this dependence on fossil fuels is increasingly seen as a vulnerability,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
This shift is most apparent in Europe, which is heavily reliant on imported Russian energy to keep the lights and heat on and has been experiencing a steady rise in energy prices. The new conflict, and the escalating sanctions and scrapped pipeline plans in response, has raised concerns that additional projected price hikes could trigger supply shortages as soon as next winter.
“We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a statement on Monday. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices, diversify our gas supply for next winter and accelerate the clean energy transition.”
The European Commission recently unveiled a plan for how the region could transition away from Russian fossil fuels before 2030, involving a near-term push to find fossil fuel alternatives to Russia’s gas imports and maximize energy efficiency combined with a longer-term shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy consistent with the region’s existing climate plans.
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“I view this as an important step in fostering the decarbonization of the European economy,” Andreas Goldthau, an energy transition expert at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, told BuzzFeed News by email.
The commission’s modeling suggests something to the tune of “two-thirds of Russian gas being replaced within one year only through those measures, which strikes me as very ambitious,” Goldthau said. He later added: “At current prices, this would mean a significant cost to industry and households, and possibly a too high cost to some.”
Meanwhile, also on Monday, President Joe Biden announced the US would immediately ban Russian energy imports, yet another layer of economic sanctions meant to punish the country for its attack on Ukraine.
“We’re moving forward on this ban, understanding that many of our European allies and partners may not be in a position to join us,” Biden said, noting that US domestic oil production gives the country flexibility Europe does not have.
But even with vast fossil fuel production at home, the US is not immune to the dramatic fluctuations in energy prices set by global energy markets. As of Thursday, gas prices hit a national average of $4.31 a gallon (adjusted for inflation, the record price for gas was $5.53 a gallon, set in 2008). Biden’s solution to preventing this problem from recurring is the same as Europe’s: embracing clean energy.
“To protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent,” Biden said. “It should motivate us to accelerate the transition to clean energy.”
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In Congress, Republicans and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia have called for more drilling on federal lands and greenlighting a blocked Canadian oil pipeline to offset oil price shocks from the war. Despite supporting a ban on Russian oil, Republicans such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have sought to blame Biden and his climate policies for higher gasoline prices.
Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva pushed back on Thursday in a “Rep. Grijalva to Call Bullshit on Oil & Gas Industry Claims” news conference, where he touted a Taxpayers for Common Sense report finding that only 10% of US oil and gas comes from federal lands, meaning they don’t play much of a role in gas prices. The White House has pushed a similar point, adding that there are currently more than 9,000 unused onshore drilling permits.
Although the climate implications could be enormous, Biden supports expanding fossil fuel production in the short term. The planet has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), triggering widespread impacts from frequent and intense heat waves, floods, and wildfires to species extinctions and rising sea levels. And it’s on track to warm 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) this century if humans don’t dramatically cut their greenhouse gas emissions, including from fossil fuels.
At the last round of international climate negotiations, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last November, world leaders pledged to accelerate the phasedown of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels. The actions discussed in the wake of the war don’t add up.
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“The world that met for COP26 in Glasgow, which I attended, is not the world we find ourselves in now,” said Michael Bradshaw, a global energy professor at Warwick Business School in England. “That’s the harsh reality.”
Other climate experts agree. “Our short-term actions and our long-term goals may look contradictory,” said Samantha Gross, director of Brookings’ Energy Security and Climate Initiative, “but in a situation like this, it’s how it is going to have to be.”
“The role of oil and gas in the global economy is very deeply embedded, so any shift is going to take a long time,” climate policy expert David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, told BuzzFeed News. Ironically, countries with the lowest-cost oil production, including Russia, will weather an accelerated worldwide shift to renewable energy for the longest time, he added, still making profits on cheap oil as higher-cost producers, like the US, shutter wells.
“In the long run, it will be terrible for them, of course.”