The world is reliant on oil. The war in Ukraine could change that

Click to play video: 'Could the Russia-Ukraine conflict accelerate the shift to green energy?'
Could the Russia-Ukraine conflict accelerate the shift to green energy?
The crisis in Ukraine has forced Western countries to reevaluate their reliance on Russian energy. Anne Gaviola explains how the crisis is prompting warnings from environmental activists about the need to turn away from oil and gas – Mar 9, 2022

The war in Ukraine is putting renewed attention on the outsized role Russia plays in the global oil and gas markets as the conflict sends energy prices soaring.

But experts say fresh efforts from Europe and other global players to accelerate decarbonization — the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through low-carbon sources — could have the combined benefit of reducing Russia’s leverage over the global energy sector and lowering heating and fuel prices for consumers in Canada and around the world.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent oil and gas prices soaring, as the eastern European country is a critical supplier of natural gas to Europe and sends oil to global markets.

Russia’s economy is also tightly tied to its energy exports. Sanctions targeting the sector have been a key part of the West’s attempts to stymie President Vladimir Putin‘s war efforts.

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The European Commission published plans on Tuesday to cut EU dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year and end its reliance on Russian supplies of the fuel “well before 2030.” The bloc relies on Russia for 40 per cent of its natural gas and a quarter of its oil imports.

“The answer to this concern for our security lies in renewable energy and diversification of supply,” EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said.

“It’s hard, bloody hard. But it’s possible.”

The United States also announced plans Tuesday to cut off its oil and gas imports from Russia, following a similar move from Canada last week, though neither country is an extensive crude trading partner with Russia. The United Kingdom has made a similar pledge to cut off Russian oil imports by the end of the year.

U.S. President Joe Biden underscored during his Tuesday announcement that the move away from Russian energy reliance, and fossil fuels more generally, is key for global security going forward.

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He warned consumers, however, that further constraining the supply of oil will send fuel prices higher in the near term.

“Defending freedom is going to cost,” he said Tuesday, adding, “I’m going to do everything I can to minimize Putin’s price hike here at home.”

But as long as global economies run on oil and gas, experts say spiking prices at the pumps and in home heating systems will be par for the course.

Oil and gas vulnerable to conflict

“What this conflict clearly shows is how dangerous our dependence on a fossil fuel system is, especially one that concentrates power in the hands of someone like Putin,” says Tzeporah Berman, international program director at Stand.Earth and an adjunct professor at York University.

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Berman notes that oil and gas supply chains are characterized by critical “choke points” — key ports or pipelines into other markets — that can be leveraged by producers or disrupted by natural disasters such as fires or floods.

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Renewables such as solar or wind are more distributed, on the other hand, and the technology has matured to the point where it’s more cost-effective to build than additional gas and oil pipelines, she says.

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: UK to stop importing Russian oil, PM Johnson says'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: UK to stop importing Russian oil, PM Johnson says

“What we are learning in this crisis is that expanding our reliance on oil and gas increases our vulnerability,” Berman says.

Increasing energy independence and sovereignty is one way for European countries to reduce Russia’s leverage over them, according to Julie MacArthur, Canada Research Chair in reimagining capitalism at Royal Roads University in B.C.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also recently spelled out this point in a series of Twitter posts, in which she argued that reducing dependence on fossil fuels specifically is required to secure the U.S.’s energy independence.

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MacArthur noted, however, in an email to Global News that the accelerated shift away from Russian energy might not have an immediate impact on the conflict.

“This will impact the current conflict to the extent that it signals a serious and long term shift away from Russia as an energy supplier, but in the very short term of days and weeks of military conflict is unlikely to prompt a troop withdrawal or ceasefire,” she wrote.

“Much depends on how long the conflict goes on for, what alternative markets are available to Russia and the strategic calculations and aims of the Russian leadership.”

Climate front and centre in Russia-Ukraine war

Accelerating decarbonization is a fundamental step to reducing nations’ vulnerabilities to not just armed conflicts like this, but also climate instability, Berman says.

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She points to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — released just days after Russia invaded Ukraine — that said the window was rapidly closing on humanity’s ability to affordably transition to a net-zero future and keep global temperature increases below the critical 1.5 C threshold.

Chris Severson-Baker, the Pembina Institute’s regional director in Alberta, tells Global News that increased attention on the climate crisis during the Russia-Ukraine conflict marks a departure from the world’s typical response to global emergencies.

Rather than putting the climate question on the back burner while addressing pressing concerns in Ukraine, the global energy transition has been put front and centre as not only a key element of the war but also as a possible solution to it and future conflicts.

“I think the world is starting to realize we’ve actually used up all the available time that we have and any time there’s any kind of a global disruption like this, you actually need to lean into addressing the climate crisis sooner and faster rather than the opposite,” Severson-Baker says.

Energy efficiency could help with soaring costs

In an effort to reduce the impact of high gas prices on Albertans, Premier Jason Kenney this week moved to stop collecting provincial sales tax on fuel, which he said could reduce costs at the pump by 13 cents per litre.

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While MacArthur told Global News she supports efforts to reduce the impacts of energy poverty on consumers, it would be a “huge strategic mistake” to do so without matching programs to accelerate decarbonization in Canada.

She calls energy efficiency incentives the “low hanging fruit” that could, with some targeted support from federal and provincial governments, help Canadians drastically reduce both costs and carbon emissions from their homes, vehicles, workplaces and schools in the not-distant future.

“The bottom line is we need to provide people with ways to heat their homes and get to work and school that don’t break the bank or the climate,” she wrote.

The technology is in place for a more rapid transition to renewable energy sources, Berman says, adding it just requires a more fervent commitment from both policymakers and financial institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry and ramp up clean energy investments.

“I think looking at the price of oil today and the price of gas, there’s a lot of people that wish we had moved quicker to ensure (adoption of) electric buses, electric cars, heat pumps,” she says.

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“Increasing the speed of the transition is not just about reducing our dependence on oil and gas that is controlled in the hands of a few. It’s also about helping families use less energy by being more energy efficient and not be so vulnerable to these price shocks in the future.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta announces plan to remove provincial fuel tax amid high oil prices'
Alberta announces plan to remove provincial fuel tax amid high oil prices

Berman hopes the Ukraine conflict could be the impetus global players need to more aggressively transition to a peaceful, decarbonized future.

“This is not rocket science. We have known literally for decades that we need to move away from fossil fuels,” she says.

“We’ve also known what a lot of the solutions are, and our governments can be more ambitious in putting in place those policies. And I think the events of the last three weeks have provided the incentive that they need.”

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— with files from Reuters

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