The New Definition of War: Ukraine Conflict Adds Urgency to Decarbonization

January 28, 2022

Can we be real for a minute?
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been at the epicenter of the war on Earth’s climate for at least a decade.
Russia’s all-but-total dependence on fossil fuels as an income has made them desperate, and dangerous .
Knowing most of the key players in the so-called “Climategate” scandal of a decade ago, I’d guess most of them would be say, in private, at least, that Russia was a leading suspect behind the email hack that upended 2009’s COP meeting in Copenhagen, and was so successful with the media that it depressed public concerns about climate change for half of a critical decade.
In this reading, that scam was a road-test for what we saw rolled out in the 2016 election – again, an email scam, conducted in the same manner, picked up by a still-gullible and somnolent media, and leading to yet another half-decade delay in serious climate action. Means, motive, and MO all in alignment, as I told an NPR call-in days after that election. (below)
Gaming it out at the time, I supressed my dread of what a fossil dominated bad actor with Russia’s capabilities might do as climate action reaches new peaks of urgency, and technology is more than ready to end fossil fuel dominance.
They’ve been at war with us for a decade, we just didn’t know it. That’s what war looks like in this age, and most of the media has not been prepared to recognize it.

Yet we see the results all around us.

The current crisis over Ukraine seems to be motivated by Putin’s Mother Russia complex, yet seems strangely irrational unless there is some poorly understood X factor in the mix. In any case, it might be that this is a bridge too far, and suddenly the decarbonization movement is now one of manifest national security importance for Europe, and the US as well.


Escalating tensions with Russia are forcing a confrontation with an uncomfortable reality for European leaders: Vladimir Putin holds the cards when it comes to Europe’s energy needs.

The E.U. imports 35% of its natural gas from Russia. As countries like the Netherlands and Germany have wound down domestic fossil fuel production in recent decades—whether because of depleted reserves or environmental policies—Europe has increasingly turned towards cheap and plentiful imports of Russian natural gas, critical for electricity and heating.

The risks of that dependence—long a source of concern for Russia hawks in the U.S. and Europe—have been crystallizing for months. Natural gas prices nearly tripled last year after demand spiked following the end of pandemic lockdowns, plunging Europe into its most severe energy crisis since the 1970’s. The International Energy Agency says Russia has already worsened the situation by deliberately squeezing gas exports. A military conflict over Ukraine may choke supply even further, spelling some painful months, or even years, for Europe.

But some environmentalists see a silver lining here: this moment could, they argue, act as a wake-up call for Europe on the risks of a fossil-fueled world. “If Europe doesn’t want to be exposed to geopolitical risks like this, it needs to reduce its dependence on natural gas as quickly as possible,” says Euan Graham, a gas transition researcher at climate think tank E3G. “It should act as a real springboard to kind of rethink Europe’s relationship with gas.”

Germany, the E.U.’s center of gravity and one of the countries most dependent on Russian natural gas, has long tried to frame its foreign policy and its energy needs as separate issues. But its new government has signaled it might now shelve authorization of Nord Stream-2, a pipeline that would have boosted gas imports from Russia.

If Russia invades Ukraine and enters a military conflict with NATO powers, natural gas prices could well double from their already high levels, says Massimo Di Odoardo, vice president of global gas research at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “There’s no telling how high [prices] will go and there’s very little Europe could do to prevent the increases.”

The E.U.’s big fear is that U.S. sanctions, which may limit Russia‘s ability to use dollars or international payment systems, would make it difficult for customers to pay for natural gas orders and cause hold-ups. In a worst case but less likely scenario, Russia could retaliate to sanctions by deliberately slashing gas flows to Europe. “In the Armageddon event that Russia kind of halves exports,” said Di Odoardo, “Europe could only last around six weeks [in cold weather] with the level of storage that they have,” before power outages and rationing would begin in some countries.

Europe’s only choice to weather the immediate impact of diminished gas supply would be to seek imports of liquified natural gas (LNG)—a form of the fuel that can be transported from far away by ships—from major producers like the U.S. and Qatar, and the Biden administration is holding crisis talks to help Europe do that. But those countries’ output can only be marginally increased, analysts say, so Europe would be competing with Asian countries for supply. That could spark global price increases.

In the long term, climate advocates say cutting Europe’s dependence on natural gas means scaling up renewable energy as fast as possible for electricity production, as well as overhauling buildings to use clean heating technologies like heat pumps and increasing energy efficiency through insulation retrofits. The latter has the added benefit of allowing governments to prioritize social housing where residents would feel the pain of gas price increases most, according to Graham.

Clean energy and efficiency projects will not solve Europe’s energy crisis within the next few months. But for the region’s leaders, the lessons of this moment will likely shape decisions for years to come. “If we really want to stop long-term making Putin very rich, we have to invest in renewables and we need to do it quickly,” the E.U.’s climate chief Frans Timmermans said Friday. “If you really want to make sure that you can provide stable, affordable energy to your citizens, renewables is the answer.”

Jennifer Rubin in Washington Post:

There may not be a foreign policy tool that is sufficient to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from further invading Ukraine. Not President Biden’s exhaustive diplomacy with European allies. Not the potential for additional NATO troops to be placed in Eastern Europe. Not the imposition of stiff financial penalties and barriers to U.S. technology. Not even the delinking of Europe from Russian energy sources.

Nevertheless, Putin will understand that taking this step would reenergize Western alliance and leave his country an economic basket case and an international pariah.

In a background call with reporters on Tuesday, senior White House officials vowed that, should Russia advance into Ukraine, “the gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.” Indeed, the prospect of severe sanctions has already been felt in the “deepening sell-off in Russian markets, its borrowing costs, the value of its currency [and the] market-implied default risk.”

Imagine if we had issued such a forceful response to Russia’s initial invasion in 2014.

We have been struggling to delink Europe from its dependence on Russian energy. Now, according to the senior advisers, that effort is well underway and would arguably more harmful to Russia than to the West. As one administration official said: “[Russia] is a one-dimensional economy, and that means it needs oil and gas revenues at least as much as Europe needs its energy supply. So remember, oil and gas export revenues are two-thirds of the total in Russia and about half of Russia’s federal budget revenues. So this is not an asymmetric advantage for Putin; it’s an interdependency.”

The administration made clear that it is “working to identify additional volumes of non-Russian natural gas from various areas of the world,” including from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It also noted that it is “in discussions with major natural gas producers around the globe to understand their capacity and willingness to temporarily surge natural gas output and to allocate these volumes to European buyers.” If those measures go into place, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline supplying natural gas from Russia to Europe could be closed.

In the short-term, a Russian invasion might actually spark an expansion of NATO to include countries such as Sweden or Finland. Coupled with a Ukrainian army armed to the teeth and prepared to inflict heavy casualties on Russia, the military adventure, rather than stirring patriotic support for Putin at home, could roil his country.

None of this is to say that Putin won’t plunge into war anyway, either miscalculating the resolve of the West or banking on its ability to wait out sanctions. “Putin is now stuck. He was banking on a mushy response from the West and instead he’s encountered steel,” Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress tells me. “Europe could also accelerate its decarbonization efforts, end its reliance on fossil fuels, further squeezing Russia economically. But Putin has put himself in a corner and it may be hard for him to back down.” As a result, Bergmann warns, “if he goes through with it, the consequences for Russia will be devastating.”

While a major war in Europe would be painful for the West and horrific for Ukraine from an economic and humanitarian perspective, we might see an accelerated version of events that toppled the old Soviet Union: A united military, political and economic Western response that cracks an already brittle regime in Moscow.

3 Responses to “The New Definition of War: Ukraine Conflict Adds Urgency to Decarbonization”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Russia’s oil&gas income has been the biggest thing keeping that country afloat, and they may have even thought in years past that global warming was a net win for them (opening their northern ports and Arctic shipping), but now Russia seems to be flailing in panic like a drowning man.

    But even aside from Russia, attempts to control oil reserves have been warping US foreign policy for decades, from Persian Gulf wars and the US sticking its warships in the Strait of Hormuz and decades of making nice to oppressive emirates/kingdoms so they won’t turn off the tap.

    I look forward to surviving to see these petrostates lose their global influence in the coming decades.

  2. gmrmt Says:

    For Russia the die is already cast. Even if they got a nondemocratic regime in the Ukraine that wasn’t dependant on Russian aid and kept Sweden and Finland from joining they’ve already provided a spur to major insulation, heat pump and renewable expansion that could easily cut demand for Russian gas by 20% by the beginning of next year. It would probably also be cut by 50% by the middle of the decade and keep declining from there.
    Add in the stronger military that europe will no doubt invest in that Russia would be hard pressed to keep up with especially with sanctions and it’s easy to see that Putin has slit Russias’ throat even with the best outcome for them.

  3. Keith McClary Says:

    The Americans blocked exports of vaccines and PPEs even when there were existing commercial contracts, and they have a long record of doing this with other commodities.
    So, they have a lot of nerve complaining when Russia is meeting its contractual obligations and more.

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