The Russo-Ukrainian Conflict: How Clean Energy Emerged as a Foreign Policy Tool

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By: Sophia Stavropoulos

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with the situation continuing to escalate. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has seemingly brought the democratic world together as countries join in support for Ukraine and condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. In response, Western countries, including the famously ‘neutral’ Switzerland, have imposed stringent economic sanctions on Russia, yet these sanctions initially failed to include what many have argued would have been the strongest force of action: sanctions on oil and gas. That same week, the  International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that “climate breakdown is accelerating rapidly, many of the impacts will be more severe than predicted, and there is only a narrow chance left of avoiding its worst ravages.” With 35% of the European Union’s (E.U.) natural gas  and “one out of every 10 barrels of oil  the world consumes”‘ coming from Russia, the neoliberal world order of increased globalization has left countries struggling to be self-sufficient.

As such, it has become apparent (if it wasn’t before) that global dependency on fossil fuels remains cripplingly high – and current clean energy projects have yet to produce the amount of energy required to fully replace oil and gas, let alone to begin the mainstream phasing out process.

It remains that foreign policy and tools of economic warfare are inherently linked with the perils of climate change. Consequently, there are two alarming issues that have arisen alongside this invasion: first, the political failure to push renewable energy to the levels needed; and second, a lack of countries’ self-sufficiency of resources, and to a larger extent: economic sufficiency.

While this criticism of external dependency may seem out of place, French President Emmanuel Macron recently put forth a similar sentiment in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, stating, “We cannot depend on others to defend us, whether on land, at sea, under the sea, in the air, in space or in cyberspace. In this respect, our European defence must take a new step forward.”

More simply, the response by German finance minister Christian Linder was “[r]enewable energy resolves dependencies. Renewable energy is freedom energy.”

As a result, there has been both a global renewed determination for investing in clean energy projects as well as calls to increase domestic production of oil and gas. However, a challenge emerges wherein despite a global consensus that moving towards clean energy sources is a path for climate action, this is a long-term goal and is unable to address this crisis in the way current sources of energy are seemingly able to. Yet, the rapid expansion of fossil fuel production will not occur overnight – oil prices will remain high, and environmental degradation may worsen.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, for example, has found support in the province in calling for increased oil production to build up Alberta’s energy reserves and destabilize Russian oil in the global market.

The International Energy Agency released a report on March 3 that outlined ten ways for the E.U. to reduce reliance on Russian gas imports by an estimated one-third in one year. To achieve this, the report argued in favour of “measures including increases in wind and solar capacity, utilizing biofuels and existing nuclear capacity, building efficiency retrofits and installation of heat pumps across the continent.” In addition, Ursula Von Der Leyen, the E.U. Commission president, noted that the bloc would “target Russia’s energy sector through an export ban preventing European companies sending technology to Russia that it needs to upgrade its refineries.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has cancelled the approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was supposed to increase Russian exports of gas to Germany. Up until 2011, one-quarter of German electricity came from their 17 nuclear reactors. However, since 2011, Germany has had a strategy aiming to close all its nuclear power plants, with the closure scheduled to be completed this year. As a result, Germany may delay the closure of their final existing nuclear power plants to increase their energy self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on Russian oil and gas. 

Despite the strong support for renewable energy projects, “[e]nergy insecurity concerns have repeatedly led foreign and a few domestic stakeholders to re-examine [Germany’s] nuclear phase-out.” However, a spokesperson for one of the few remaining open plants noted that even if Germany decided to prolong their closure, “[t]he group has neither the nuclear fuel nor the staff that would be required to keep the plants going.”

As such, Germany will have to find other sources of energy. For example, there will likely be an increase in imports of American liquefied natural gas, although it remains unknown if accelerated production can fill the void. Further, there are calls for the oil reserves in the Persian Gulf states to be made available.

This is also evident in the United Kingdom (U.K.), where they have begun to conduct a reappraisal of their energy supplies, and intensify the call to action for renewable energy generation to eliminate dependency on fossil fuels. 

As countries and the E.U. continue to make statements about finding new sources of energy to reduce dependency on Russian oil and gas, many are wondering how effective sanctions on Russia’s energy sector would have been. Arguably, because Putin has been reconfiguring Russia’s financial system following the 2014 annexation of Crimea to ensure Russian survival against future sanctions, an oil embargo may have been the crushing blow Putin would have listened to. While playing the ‘what if’ game here may cause more anger and frustration, it is critical to recognize the conscious decision (with a specific emphasis on European nations) not to target Russian oil and gas – at least from the outset.

With pressure increasing from both sides of the aisle and through public outcry, on March 8, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. is now banning all imports of Russian oil and gas. In doing so, the U.S. has positioned itself nicely to ramp up energy exports to Europe through increased production of liquified natural gas.

However, though these sanctions would have arguably produced the largest economic toll on Russia, and time will tell in more countries following suit, importantly, these sanctions would not and have not forced an immediate removal of Russian forces from Ukraine. In turn, the global economy is becoming more unstable, especially as inflation and the price of crude oil continues to rise to over $100 a barrel, a seven-year high.

Despite targets for clean energy and calls to action, many of these renewable energy projects will not be ready immediately and therefore, do not have the capacity to replace the current dependency on Russian oil and gas. In turn, Russia will lose its place in the global energy market, and a new state will profit by taking their place; and although it is not yet clear who that might be, indicators seem to point to the U.S. as a frontrunner.

While a transition to clean renewable energy should have occurred long ago, this shift must be done correctly, removing the potential to fall backward (e.g., increase fossil fuel production) in order to effectively address the imminent threats of climate change. It is essential that there are strong transition periods of overlap as oil and gas phase-out. The announcement of clean energy projects should not result in the closure of oil refineries or power plants until the energy production from these renewable sources has the capacity to replace the former. Failure to do so may result in a situation where Germany’s move to eliminate their nuclear power plants increased their dependency on Russian oil as they built up their renewable energy sector.

If countries resume using fossil fuels in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, any, if not all, previous attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be gone. The race for self-sufficient clean energy is underway, with the current political instability cautioning foreign policy to be wary of its future environmental impact while also addressing the immediate need to help the people of Ukraine.

Sophia Stavropoulos is a Master of Public Policy candidate with a Collaborative Specialization in Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her research interests include environmental policy, Indigenous issues, and American cultural & political history.  Sophia holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences, Joint Honours in Political Science and History from the University of Ottawa.

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