The Ukraine/Russia Conflict Only Strengthens the Case for Renewables

For years, Russia has been known as an energy superpower. As the world's third-largest oil producer and second-largest natural gas producer, fossil fuel sales account for a significant portion of the country's economy and have long provided the country with political leverage. Many countries across the world depend on Russia for oil and natural gas imports; in Europe, nearly 40 percent of natural gas and more than a quarter of oil imports stem from Russia. Even in the United States, though we are less reliant, around eight percent of oil and petroleum products are Russian. The United States does not buy any Russian natural gas.

Source: Nations Online Project

With the recent conflict in Ukraine, however, western countries are caught in the middle of an energy conundrum. Not only have fossil fuel supplies and projects been disrupted by the war, but countries are struggling to balance condemning/sanctioning Russia with continuing to meet their energy needs. The costs of fossil energy were already on the upswing prior to the Ukraine invasion with oil costs the highest they've been since 2014; now, prices are skyrocketing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked for western nations to add Russian oil and gas to a growing list of sanctions and embargoes. After tossing around the idea of sanctions, the Biden Administration signed an executive order on March 8 banning Russian energy imports to the United States. This order forbids new Russian energy contracts and calls for phasing out existing contracts by mid-April. But it's not always that easy for countries more deeply entrenched in Russian fossil energy. While European nations imposed a number of economic sanctions at the start of the Ukrainian invasion, fuels were notably exempt from the mix. Immediately eliminating European energy imports would deal an immense blow to the Russian economy. On the flip side, however, it would threaten European citizens and industries, and limit countries' ability to otherwise counter Russian attacks.

European options to scale up alternative fuel supplies are currently limited. Officials are looking for possibilities to reduce Russian dependence, but it will take time. The U.K. plans to phase out oil and petroleum products over the course of the next year. The European Union's new plan pledges to reduce Russian gas purchases by two-thirds before the end of 2022. Goals for ceasing all fossil fuel purchases, however, are as far out as 2030. Countries can only change their fuels but so quickly, especially considering how governments have dragged their feet on a clean energy transition.

While certainly a convoluted topic, the Russian energy dilemma reveals how energy issues - and subsequently, climate change issues - threaten national security. A world relying primarily on fossil fuels may always be one war away from energy collapse and international disaster. What's more, as evidenced by a timely new report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, planetary warming due to fossil fuel emissions is a massive threat to human welfare. Diversified markets are key, and clean energy should be the answer. Whereas fossil resources may be concentrated in only certain locations, solar and wind resources are broadly available across the world. Economies powered by renewable energy thus better insulate themselves from situations like that of Europe and Russia.

Now is the time to recognize the volatility and insecurity of fossil fuels - not to mention their climate impacts - and make the transition to clean energy. As countries cut off dirty imports, it seems like a great opportunity to scale up renewable resources. But while there are some plans to accelerate renewable energy development, it seems that many governments are still looking to fossil fuels as the answer. Some European leaders note that the long-term solution should be renewable energy. However, the E.U. has spoken of replacing Russian gas (for the time being) with imported liquified natural gas from the United States and elsewhere.

In the United States, President Biden noted that the crisis should motivate a transition to clean energy. He pushed back on the notion that loosening environmental regulations and pulling back on clean investments will lower energy prices. But despite the president's promises to slash fossil fuel usage, the United States is still seeking to replace Russian oil with diplomacy from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela. And while some members of Congress say renewable energy investments are the best way to cut ties with "fossil-fuel despots," others are pushing for a domestic drilling and fracking free-for-all.

One thing is for sure, doubling down on fossil fuels is not the way to a better future. Both energy and climate change are issues of national security. Now is the time to emphasize diversifying our markets with clean, reliable energy sources. A clean energy world is one that is safer for all.

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