The Climate Crisis and the Russo-Ukrainian War:
A Call to Action for Global Energy Reform
September 25, 2023
By Fergal McEntee
Head of Sustainable Energy at Sustain Europe
IMAGE: Fergal McEntee
The abrupt surge in fossil fuel prices, triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, serves as a reality check on our global energy vulnerabilities.
This situation invites us to delve deeper into the profound implications of our energy choices. It is a stark reminder that our energy security is not just about the immediate availability of resources, but also about the resilience of our systems in the face of geopolitical uncertainties. Had Europe made more substantial investments in energy efficiency and the development of low-carbon renewable electricity generation, our economies would not have been left so exposed to the whims of Putin's gas policies.
Let this serve as a clarion call. We need to do more to prepare for the next crisis on the horizon – climate breakdown.
It's now time for a sobering reality check – humanity is faltering. Our political system and neoliberal economics are steering us towards the precipice of societal instability, all while our media blinds us to the costly and deadly consequences. If left unchecked and without serious, collective emergency action, then runaway irreversible climate breakdown within this or the next generation is a stark reality we must confront.
Climate breakdown is accelerating, and the past year has seen an unprecedented number of climate-related events worldwide. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan displaced 8 million people. Droughts in the Horn of Africa have put tens of millions at risk of food shortages. A UN report linked 43,000 deaths in Somalia to famine, half of which were children. The "megadrought," a period of extreme dryness lasting decades, is decimating crops across Western America. Extreme wildfires have ravaged North America, Argentina, and Russia.
In the same year the war in Ukraine escalated, Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years. Major rivers ran dry, the Rhine became unnavigable in places, forcing ships to sail with only 25% of their cargo. Crop failures followed, nuclear plants shut down, and hellish wildfires spread across the continent. 2023 has been marked by biblical rains. In Northern Italy, flooding forced the cancellation of the F1 Grand Prix. Crop failures across the Iberian Peninsula due to the driest climate in 1,200 years, and with 'El Nino' looming, further records are set to be shattered.
March 2023 the UN Secretary General António Guterres described the sixth "synthesis report" from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as "a survival guide for humanity". He urged developed countries to commit to reaching net zero emissions by the earlier date of around 2040.
Guterres issued his starkest warning that the "climate time bomb is ticking" and "the rate of temperature rise in the last half century is the highest in 2,000 years," he said. "Concentrations of carbon dioxide are at their highest in at least 2 million years".
With record temperatures in Europe and around the world, an average global warming of 1.2C and approximately 2C in Europe, we can no longer gamble with the future of the planet.
Current climate pledges from the latest COP27 will push the dial further to 2.8C if, and it's a big if, we meet our pledges!
Add in the geopolitical situation of petrostates controlling the flow of existing fossil fuel energy, now is the time to introduce rapid decarbonisation as a matter of energy security, political security, food security, and a future liveable planet.
The European Green Deal, agreed by the EU in 2020, aims to reduce GHG by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. These targets now seem outdated in light of the latest climate science, and current policies from member states look set to reduce emissions by just 36%-47%.
Ukrainian lifeguards and volunteers seen evacuating helpless old people from flooded areas following the Nova Kakhovka dam breach instigated by Russian forces. Consequently, more than 700,000 locals are without access to clean drinking water. This breach has critically jeopardised the ecosystems of the Kakhovka reservoir, the lower Dnipro River, the Black Sea, and 80,000 hectares of protected areas, leaving them in severe peril.
IMAGE: Mykhaylo Palinchak
Russian Gas as the Enemy
The Russo-Ukrainian war has devastated communities and taken a tragic toll on lives. Russia's energy blackmail has left European countries scrambling for energy supply. To compensate for the loss of Russian gas, Germany was forced to reopen coal-fired plants. The shock waves of gas price spikes caused cost-of-living crises felt around the world. Fortunately, the mild winter saved millions across Europe from freezing. However, we cannot continue to rely on the mercy of mild winters to shield us from the consequences of our energy vulnerabilities. Climate change is making weather patterns increasingly unpredictable, and a harsh winter could have devastating effects. The stakes are too high, and the time for complacency has long since passed.
Global sanctions are not working quickly enough. Billions of petrodollars are still flowing into Russia, funding the bombs that are destroying Europe's most terrestrially biodiverse country. The urgency to rapidly decarbonise Europe is both a major climate and security priority.
In 2021, 45% of Europe's gas was imported from Russia. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia curbed gas supplies to Europe, causing an energy crisis of squeezed supplies and record-high prices. The EU responded with the target to quit Russian fossil fuels by 2027. The question remains: how can we achieve this without developing new fossil fuel supplies?
Europe's Consumption and Energy Mix
Europe, with its 750 million inhabitants, is a significant contributor to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. These emissions stem from our consumption habits, heating and cooling of our buildings, modes of transportation, and land use.
In 2021, fossil fuels accounted for two-thirds (76%) of Europe's energy consumption - gas made up 34%, oil 31%, and coal 11%. Renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, hydropower, and biofuels, accounted for 14%, with nuclear energy making up the remaining 10%.
The EU-27, along with the UK, imports 80% of its total gas needs, costing between EUR 75-100 billion per year. When wholesale prices rise, these costs are passed onto consumers, who end up paying more than double.
In 2019, the EU-27 consumed around 464 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas across residential, commercial, industrial, and power generation sectors.
The primary energy use in the residential sector is for heating and hot water, accounting for around 60% of energy consumption. 30% of households use gas as the main fuel to heat their homes.
Europe has a ready solution to move away from Russian gas, which can be scaled up to eliminate gas dependency much sooner.
Powering Down our Energy Demand
The detailed peer-reviewed report "Zero Carbon Britain," compiled by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), suggests that the UK could reduce energy demand by 60% by using energy more efficiently.
This methodology can be applied across Europe to achieve rapid energy savings. The quickest and cheapest first step is to use less energy. We can achieve this by making changes to buildings, transport systems, and behaviour.
Implementing heating controls, LED lighting, and building insulation can save vast amounts of energy. Passive cooling and building shading can further reduce air-conditioning usage.
Energy efficiency has proven to lead to extra energy consumption. Therefore, mechanisms need to be in place to prevent us from consuming more energy.
Sustainable, affordable travel in our cities must be prioritised over private car use, including electric cars. It is an opportunity to redefine our relationship with the environment, to foster community connectivity, and to create cities that are not just sustainable, but also healthier and more livable.
IMAGE: Fergal McEntee
District Heating Systems for the Future
Next, we need to switch heating from oil and gas boilers to proven energy-efficient heat pumps and district heating systems. Domestic and commercial installations are increasing, but supply issues and installer training are holding back deployment. Furthermore, for many dwellings where space for conventional heat pumps is restricted, such as blocks of flats and highly dense urban areas, giant heat pumps may unlock the key to hard-to-replace properties.
The good news is the latest surge in Giant Heat Pumps that can power whole towns is growing in both size and popularity. German firm MAN Energy Solutions (MAN ES) has developed a commercial heat pump thousands of times more powerful than a single domestic heat pump - with a total heating capacity of 48 megawatts (MW). The company recently installed two of these giants in the Port City of Esbjerg, Denmark, to supply district heating to 27,000 households.
The technology uses seawater as a heat source, wind and solar as an energy source, CO2 as a refrigerant, and a hermetically sealed, electrically-driven compressor to generate heat.
By coupling power generation with this heat pump solution, it allows the unique feature of using excessive wind to balance the grid by storing excess heat for later use. Thus, helping to solve the intermittent problem of renewable energy.
Recapturing Excess Heat
Danfoss, the Danish multinational engineering company, published a report in February 2023 that estimated excess heat alone could almost provide the EU enough energy for heating and hot water.
Excess heat is released into the air from a wide range of sources, including data centres, supermarkets, transport networks, and power plants. Heat recovery technologies such as heat pumps and district heating systems can capture much of this surplus heat.
We cannot afford to let this excess heat dissipate into the atmosphere unused. This is not just a matter of energy efficiency, but also of environmental responsibility and economic prudence. Every joule of heat we waste is a joule of energy that must be produced elsewhere, often through the burning of fossil fuels. Now it's up to us to seize this opportunity and turn waste into wealth.
Powering up Renewable Energy
Currently, only 14% of final energy generation comes from renewables, a figure that needs to be rapidly increased. The use of incentives, financing, and regulations will enable unhindered growth. Many technologies available today can be quickly deployed to homes and businesses.
Encouraging the adoption of domestic renewable energy projects such as photovoltaic with batteries and solar thermal for producing hot water will reduce the demand on the grid.
Large-scale installations are becoming cheaper and quicker to install. Solar Photovoltaic (PV) and wind are now the cheapest forms of new energy. Ramping up utility-scale renewable energy is paramount.
Germany is set to install 215 GW of solar by 2030 under a new Renewable Energy Sources (EEG) Act. The UK hopes to install 70 GW by 2035. But this is not enough. The potential for solar, wind, and biomass across Europe is curtailed by limited available sites, grid access, and permitting.
Ukraine's potential green recovery could provide much-needed green solutions.
IMAGE: Iaroslav Danylchenko
Ukraine as the Renewable Energy Powerhouse of Europe
In his address to the Ukraine Recovery conference on June 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy articulated a compelling vision of Ukraine as a "hub for modern green energy" within Europe.
Ukraine's strategic location at Europe's crossroads and its shared borders with numerous EU nations make it an optimal hub for energy distribution.
It has a well-developed energy infrastructure due to its history as a major energy supplier, particularly of natural gas. This existing infrastructure can be modified or expanded to accommodate the production and distribution of renewable energy which could be exported to Europe through the Romanian interconnector and the newly established Ukrainian-Polish energy bridge, among other routes.
Ukraine boasts considerable potential for solar power, particularly in its southern regions, and wind power along its extensive coastline and expansive plains. It also has considerable biomass potential due to its large agricultural sector.
When Ukraine joins the EU, it will possess the largest land mass of any member state. This land could be utilized for biomass, wind, and solar energy, with estimates suggesting a generation capacity of between 667 GW to 874 GW, well over ten times the current capacity of 60 GW.
Biomass already constitutes 20% of the EU's renewable energy mix, and Ukraine's robust agricultural sector could enhance this with existing crops such as grain and rapeseed.
Research has demonstrated that biomass technology is far from being carbon neutral. Any forthcoming utilisation of biomass must incorporate carbon sequestration – a process known as biomass carbon capture and storage. The ecological restoration of Ukraine presents an ideal opportunity to refine these emerging technologies, thereby ensuring that biomass and biofuels are produced with environmental sustainability at the forefront.
By employing agrisolar techniques, land allocated for solar energy can also be used for crop cultivation, with solar panels suspended above the fields. While further research and rigorous trials are necessary, Ukraine's vast size makes it an ideal testing ground.
In the past year, Ukraine has constructed more onshore wind power plants than England, demonstrating that sheer determination can lead to significant progress. Ukraine's extensive wind-swept lands could contribute an additional 320 GW of onshore wind and a further 251 GW offshore in the Black Sea. Add another 60 GW of solar then it's easy to see the potential of a great green recovery for Ukraine.
The reconstruction of destroyed housing stock provides Ukraine with an opportunity to construct state-of-the-art, energy-efficient buildings to the highest sustainability standards. With the European Investment Bank (EIB) recently approving the EU for Ukraine Initiative, a new scheme to finance reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine, Europe now has a golden opportunity to use Ukraine as a testing ground for the most advanced and emerging environmental technologies. This will aid in rebuilding the country and ensuring long-term energy security for the EU and other European nations.
The culmination of these efforts will transform Ukraine into a shining beacon of sustainability. This unique scenario offers Europe, and indeed the entire world, an unprecedented window to observe, learn and understand the systemic transformations required to create a truly climate-resilient society and reach net-zero carbon emissions. As Ukraine demonstrates the practical applications of advanced environmental technologies, it will provide a roadmap for global climate resilience, signifying the necessary adjustments for other countries to emulate in their journey towards achieving sustainability goals.
Fossil fuels, until their combustion, serve as highly compact energy storage units. While hydro and geothermal energy can be stored, they are site-specific and have limited capacity (keep an eye out for advancements in deep geothermal).
Improving energy storage technologies can mitigate the intermittent nature of renewable energy. During periods of excess production, the energy is stored and used later. The development of various storage methods, such as salt water, lithium, molten sands, pumped hydro, and spinning and weighted batteries, is essential.
Energy storage is becoming more affordable due to the rapidly falling costs of lithium-ion batteries, making them more competitive with traditional grid infrastructure. However, these batteries face challenges related to raw material availability, risk of overheating, flammability, and environmental impact. Alternatives, like solid-state batteries with higher energy density and safety, redox flow batteries offering scalability and longer cycle life, and sodium-ion batteries which use abundant and cheaper sodium ions, are gaining attention. Energy Storage as a Service (ESaaS) is emerging, where providers install and operate energy storage systems, allowing customers to enjoy benefits without the costs and maintenance of ownership. As technology improves and costs decline, energy storage will increasingly support a more sustainable, resilient energy system.
IMAGE: Liu Fuyu
Interconnectors and Grid Reinforcement
Solar and wind project developers are facing challenges in securing grid connections for their projects. In the UK, some developers face a staggering 13-year wait for grid connection. The rise in electrical heating (via heat pumps) and electric vehicles is escalating electrical demand, putting strain on the already aging grid. It is imperative that grid upgrades are prioritised and funded to accommodate new renewable connections.
On February 24, 2022, Ukraine's electric grid operator disconnected from the Russian grid. This was intended as a three-day trial for a longer-term plan to connect with the European grid. However, Russia invaded just four hours later. What was expected to take a year to connect the two grids was accomplished in two weeks. No power system has ever synchronised this quick before, serving as a testament to the ability to accomplish even the most daunting tasks more swiftly than anticipated.
As the mix of renewable sources increases, so does the intermittency. Interconnecting power grids are crucial to achieving the necessary diversification. Subsea and land interconnectors already link Europe. Xlinks is planning a 3.6 GW high-voltage direct current intercontinental interconnector to transport solar and wind-generated electricity from Morocco to the UK. They are even contemplating a larger interconnector between America and Europe, envisioning a true global electrical power network that will balance intermittent renewable energy.
Research and Development (R&D)
Europe must invest in its future by funding R&D for new energy technologies, innovative solutions, and infrastructure. Greater risks must be taken in commercialising new technologies, renewable systems, energy storage, and various types of carbon capture and storage technologies.
New nuclear power plants have a long lead time of between 11 - 17 years and are now three to five times costlier than renewables, making them slow and expensive. However, nuclear energy packs a massive punch with the highest energy density and a consistent base load. It should not be dismissed, especially if safety and waste issues can be addressed. Small Modular Reactors (SMR) have the potential to expedite nuclear deployment and warrant further development.
Nevertheless, it is vital that the deployment of nuclear energy, whether traditional or in the form of SMRs, should only occur when we can ensure, with absolute certainty, that it will not pose a danger or cause harm to our planet. All necessary precautions and safety measures must be in place, prioritising the health of the environment and inhabitants of Earth above all else.
Education and Citizens' Assemblies
The extensive disruptive work required, from roadworks to house insulation, coupled with the vast costs involved, necessitates greater public buy-in. Many organisations and political parties are questioning the need for net zero. Governments and the media have a crucial role to play in informing the public about the scale of the climate and ecological crises.
Truthful communication and citizen-led solutions will foster better engagement. Citizens' assemblies have proven to work. The Irish Citizens' Assembly sparked a shift in the Irish government's policy on climate change, leading to their Climate Action Plan 2021.
Europe's transition to a net zero economy will require more than $32tn of investments in energy and related technologies between now and 2050, according to a new report from BloombergNEF (BNEF). Annual investments into clean energy in Europe need to be more than triple the current level for the rest of this decade, and more than quadruple in the 2030s, according to BNEF.
We cannot shy away from these investments any longer. The urgency of the climate crisis demands bold action, and the economic opportunities presented by the clean energy transition are too great to ignore. The funds must be found. Whether through public financing, private investment, or a combination of both, we must marshal the resources necessary to make the transition to a net zero economy a reality. The funds we allocate today will yield dividends in the form of a healthier planet, a more robust economy, and a more secure energy future.
IMAGE: Dmytro Tolmachov
We cannot afford to let aggressive, repressive petrostates wield energy as a weapon of geopolitical blackmail. Decarbonisation is the only solution to end our dependency on imported fossil fuels and to slow climate change.
The current crisis underscores the importance of fully decarbonising and diversifying our energy sources, not just for economic reasons, but also for the sake of our planet's health. It is a wake-up call to Europe and the world that we need to rethink our energy strategies. We need to understand that our reliance on fossil fuels is not just a matter of economic convenience, but a choice that has far-reaching implications for our environment, our political stability, and our future generations. The price shock is not just a temporary inconvenience, but a symptom of a deeper, systemic issue that we need to address.
We must come to terms with the fact that our present Net Zero targets are not aligned with the most recent scientific findings. A swift and comprehensive emergency decarbonisation plan is not just a necessity, but an urgent priority that demands immediate action.
The implementation of such a plan will not only serve as a catalyst for the creation of millions of high-quality jobs, but it will also stimulate economic growth. Moreover, it will foster a more habitable environment, one that is not just sustainable, but also conducive to the health and well-being of all its inhabitants.
As we stand on the precipice of change, we must remember that our actions today will echo into the future. The choices we make now will shape the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit. Therefore, we must act not just for ourselves, but for the generations yet to come. In this endeavour, we are not merely preserving our future; we are actively creating it. The urgency of now is a call to action, a call to responsibility, and a call to envision a world where economic growth and environmental sustainability are not at odds, but are two sides of the same coin. This is our challenge, and this is our opportunity. Let us seize it with both hands, for the sake of our planet, and for the legacy we leave behind.
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