Feature: Will war in Ukraine lead to a quicker transition to renewable energy?

Air Quality News reporter Georgie Hughes explores the potential impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war on the use of fossil fuels, and whether it will help or hinder decarbonisation efforts. 

As fighting continues between Russia and Ukraine, nations across the globe are feeling the effects of the crisis. The world has placed tough sanctions on Russia and cut imports of oil and gas, causing prices to soar.  

One of the top three crude producers and second largest natural gas producer in the world, Russia has tried to wield its vast energy supplies to influence other countries to side with the nation. Recently the Eastern European power announced it will no longer supply gas to Poland and Bulgaria since they refused to pay in roubles. In response to this threatening demeanour, alongside a disapproval of Putin’s actions, many countries have made clear intentions to end their reliance on Russian fuel altogether. The EU has announced plans to be energy independent by 2030, while the UK will phase out imports of Russian oil by the end of the year.  

As nations begin to establish energy independence and cut down use of foreign fossil fuels, it seems like a chance for governments to speed up their transition to renewable energy. But will governments use this unique moment to make the change?  

If this pivotal moment is used correctly, renewables could become the dominant source of power, as governments are forced to re-evaluate how they produce energy. The International Energy Agency recently released a report on how global oil demand could be reduced by 2.7 million barrels a day if emergency measures were introduced.


‘Reducing oil use must not remain a temporary measure. Sustained reductions are important not only to improve countries’ energy security but also to tackle climate change and reduce air pollution,’ wrote the organisation. ‘Governments have all the necessary tools at their disposal to put oil demand into decline in the coming years, and the report sets out the key ones to achieve this goal, including hastening the adoption of electric vehicles, raising fuel economy standards, boosting alternative fuel supplies, accelerating heat pump deployment, and producing and consuming plastic more sustainably.’ 

Many nations are already stepping in this direction, as new energy strategies are publicised. Britain’s Energy Security Strategy announced in early April laid out a proposal to accelerate the roll out of wind, solar, hydrogen and nuclear power in a bid to cut ties with Russia. There are also plans to ensure nuclear makes up 25% of electricity demand by 2050, reach 50gw of wind by 2030 and increase solar capacity.  

Stuart Dossett, Policy Adviser at think tank and charity the Green Alliance, believes scaling up wind and solar is a ‘no regret option’ which achieves net zero targets and reduces reliance on international fossil fuel markets. ‘I think we’ll be looking for the government to produce a clean power plan that sets out a roadmap for how it will deliver the decarbonised power system that its committed to and for meeting its targets for renewable energy expansion,’ he said. ‘To further speed up the deployment of renewables as well, the government should reform onshore planning restrictions for wind and solar and deliver a coordinated and integrated offshore grid for offshore wind.’  

Governments should also focus more on increasing energy efficiency to tackle both energy security and net zero targets. Stew Horne, Head of Policy at the Energy Saving Trust, an independent organisation working on addressing the climate emergency, tells Air Quality News: ‘Improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s largely inefficient housing stock should be a higher priority. A long-term home energy efficiency programme supported by a comprehensive national impartial service, providing tailored advice to households, would minimise soaring energy costs, reduce our reliance on a volatile fossil fuel market and cut carbon emissions – both at an individual and national level.’ 

However, despite a shift towards renewable energy there is still a risk nations will increase domestic production of oil and gas as they distance themselves from Russia. The UK has already announced plans for a new licensing round for oil and gas projects in the North Sea as part of the Energy Security Strategy. It suggests governments are still relying on fossil fuels, despite a prime opportunity to leave them behind.  

‘Use of oil and gas in the UK needs to halve by 2035 if we are to achieve our legally binding target of cutting harmful carbon emissions by 78 per cent,’ added Mr Horne. ‘Investing in fossil fuels is a backwards step and will not secure a supply of affordable energy that we need to address the problems people are facing now. Instead, it will put the brakes on a transition to cleaner, cheaper energy and continue to tie us to prices set by the international market.’  

The government has assured this new licensing round is still in line with its environmental ambitions. Any new oil and gas projects that are launched will need to pass a climate compatibility checkpoint introduced last December. But, even so, it’s unlikely the country will see any immediate benefits, as it takes years for oil to be extracted. ‘It will be decades before the new oil and gas fields start producing so they won’t improve the UK’s energy security or help to reduce consumer bills during the current cost of living crisis,’ said Mr Dossett. ‘Simultaneously, the electrification of home heating and cars in particular are going to decrease the demand for oil and gas in the UK.’  

Despite this, some MPs are insistent we increase domestic production of oil and gas to ensure stability. For example, Sarah Atherton, MP for Wrexham, suggested the government forget net zero ambitions for now and prioritise building energy independence. If this rhetoric continues the swift switch to renewables which is hoped for may no longer be in sight.  

It’s currently unclear how the energy crisis will play out and only time will tell if governments will use this chance to take the leap into renewables. But as tensions between Ukraine and Russia aren’t ending anytime soon, nations may soon prioritise energy supply over the planet. 

This article first appeared in the May issue of Air Quality News – view it in full here


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