There is no diminishing the near-inconceivable horror faced by the people of Ukraine as the Russian invasion of the country enters its second month. Reducing the atrocities of this baseless military incursion to numbers — 902 civilians killed, 1,459 injured, and 6.5 million displaced within the country on top of 3.2 million who have fled* — though arguably important in fighting “the first casualty of war” — is to further dehumanise a population suffering in conditions not known in Europe since 1945.
However, as a civilisation travelling into an era of unprecedented global heating — the US economist Joseph Stieglitz has called the climate crisis our planet’s “third world war” — there is a faint flickering of hope that the situation in Ukraine is awakening Europe and the wider world to just the extent to which we are hostage to Russia for its gas. And, equally, how shutting down the pipelines that last year flowed over $55bn into Moscow’s coffers could breathe new impetus into the energy transition around the world.
The dependency on Russian hydrocarbons in Europe — accounting for 40% of gas and 30% of oil — runs deep. But, as European Commission vice-president for the Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, admonished EU leaders at an emergency meeting in Versailles, France last month, “tackling our vulnerabilities and rapidly becoming independent in our energy choices” can be achieved if fuelled by ramping up renewables-fed electrification and rapid development of the bloc’s hydrogen economy.
The Commission’s REPowerEU strategy to accelerate renewables deployment and green hydrogen production — and free the bloc from Russian oil & gas within five years — could be a beacon here.
Putting this plan into action will have resonant benefits to the industrial transformation that is progressing hand-in-hand with the energy transition — not least for offshore wind, which is already girding itself for a major role in the baseload power supply, with Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Portugal all having upped their targets for at-sea power capacity since Russia invaded Ukraine.
At a higher level too, Europe’s next moves will reverberate with the longer-term potential of “energy independence”. The phrase was tellingly repeated by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky when he announced his country’s connection to the European synchronous grid a few weeks ago — and is a term used in energy transition legislation in the Baltic state capitals of Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga — all of which know something about Russian occupation.
“Bloody hard, but possible” was Timmermans’ almost Churchillian description of the challenge of emancipating the EU from Russian fossil fuels. Ukraine could perversely be the force that supercharges and speeds the energy transition in Europe and around the world.
- Darius Snieckus is Editor-in-Chief of Recharge
*UN figures as of 19 March 2022