A Crucial Choice to Make
It’s time to muster up urgent determination and double down on the clean energy future, the only future that gives us a future.
Christiana is a Founding Partner of Global Optimism, co-presenter of climate podcast, Outrage + Optimism, and co-author of The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist's Guide to the Climate Crisis.
24 March 2022
The patient has been diagnosed with lung cancer caused by decades of smoking. The cancer is not yet terminal, but getting extremely close. The patient then learns that the all-time provider of cigarettes is using his income to inflict atrocities on innocent people. How does the patient react?
The patient could decide to try to protect some of those people by planting tobacco in their backyard and starting a home-based tobacco rolling operation. The bully’s income is diminished for the moment, but the health threat increases. Or the patient could decide to break the addiction of smoking all together and move to healthier habits. That starves the oppressor of income and saves the patient’s life.
The atrocities in Ukraine have been financed by our addiction to oil and gas. The sector accounts for 40% of Russia’s federal budget revenues and 60% of its exports. Russian oil and gas revenues substantially exceeded initial forecasts in 2021 due to skyrocketing prices.
The war in Ukraine has been financed by those in the West who import Russian oil and gas, in full knowledge that the continued burning of these fuels threatens the possibility of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees, the ceiling established by science to be the maximum temperature increase to which life on this planet could adapt. Voices that argue for merely shifting the source of fossil fuels are condemning us to widespread human misery for decades to come.
Finding a resolution to the Ukraine misery is a critical first step, but not the last. The invasion is the result of mutual underestimation. Putin underestimated both the iron will of the Ukrainian people and the West’s capacity to pull together in weaponizing international financial flows. The West underestimated Putin’s desire for Russia to be reckoned with on the world stage once again.
The political confrontation and military horrors could find some resolution: talks have started, focusing on NATO neutrality and the recognition of Crimea and parts of Donbas as “russified”. A third of Ukrainian territory will not be easy to give up, but even if all sides were to reach an agreement, painful but acceptable for the time being, the resolution hides the source of the even larger problem: the West’s addiction to oil and gas. As long as that addiction persists, Putin holds a Damocles’ sword he can easily wield again at any moment in another geography. And he will, despite current strengthening of NATO military presence in the region. A good example is the recent demand that payments for Russian gas be made in roubles bought on the local market.
Back to our cancer patient. The West has a crucial choice to make, and the consequences of that choice cannot be underestimated. One option is to deepen the dependence on fossil fuels and thereby continue to play into the hands of unstable, unpredictable political regimes, while condemning the entire planet to the scientifically predicted disasters. That is the response Putin might want.
In addition to the horrors inflicted on the courageous people of Ukraine, Putin’s invasion can be seen as a provocation to the West to produce such panic that we dig back into the fossil fuels which we were just beginning to emerge from. It would be a huge win for Putin if nations invest in more fossil based infrastructure, which has decades-long lifespans. Around 130 countries import some or all of their fossil fuels today, and close to 50 import crude oil from Russia. Putin thrives on a world that continues to stall on moving beyond oil and gas.
A few days before the invasion, Russia and China agreed to build a new gas pipeline, directly connecting the two countries, and Pakistan is close to finalising a deal with Russia to build the ‘North-South’ pipeline.
The EU and the US have said they will stay the course in terms of severing their increasingly costly addiction to Russian fossil fuels and accelerating decarbonisation, but the longer the war goes on, the more likely they are to ramp up domestic fossil fuel production in the face of short-term energy squeezes.
Shell is now revisiting its decision to pull out of the Cambo oil field. The UK and German governments, among others, have both called for a fast-tracking of domestic fossil fuel production – fuels that will of course be burned for energy. These choices are made even as the Arctic and Antarctic are experiencing ‘impossible’, destabilising heatwaves.
We can and must tackle both the acute and the chronic crises together, and we can do so with the same measures. The IEA has put out two new 10 point plans that would 1) substantially reduce oil use in advanced economies through behaviour changes in a matter of months, 2) substantially reduce EU gas imports from Russia while lowering emissions within one year. Similar measures can be done elsewhere. It is entirely possible to both reduce our addiction and our emissions. It is imperative that we do both. National energy independence for all nations is at the basis of increased international peace.
When President Zelensky was sworn into power he told his government and the citizens of Ukraine not to hang his picture in their offices. He asked them instead to hang their children’s pictures up and to look at them when making a decision.
The huge photo of five year old Valeriia held up by hundreds of people in Lviv should remind us that we are here to steward our planet for future generations, not to destroy it. We cannot continue our fatal addiction to fossil fuels.
This moment screams for a departure from the past. We must unequivocally stand up to the bully – in this case Putin – with the knowledge that in the future there will be other bullies, wielding power they’ve accrued with profits from fossil fuels in unpredictable ways. It’s time to muster up urgent determination and double down on the clean energy future, the only future that gives us a future.