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Cut the root of Russia’s power by making a clean energy transition

We need to connect the dots: The war in Ukraine is inextricably linked with the climate emergency. We need to save both democracy and the climate.

Much stronger responses are needed than cheering on Ukrainians, selling them weapons, and levying economic sanctions on Russia. We need a strategy to cut the root of Russia’s power: the global economy that runs on fossil fuels.

Despite increasingly desperate warnings from climate scientists, our global economy continues to depend heavily on fossil fuels. Fully 80 percent of global energy demand is met today by coal, oil, and gas, a percentage that has not changed over the past decade, according to data from the International Energy Authority. Renewable energy resources and capacity, including solar, wind, and battery storage, is increasing rapidly, but overall energy demand is increasing as well.

Russia counts among the top three producers of fossil fuels in the world (along with the United States and Saudi Arabia). Approximately 45 percent of Russia’s economy depends on fossil fuel production and sales. Russia has the largest gas reserves in the world and is the largest gas exporter. These energy resources translate into heavy geopolitical leverage.

The answer is for other countries — led by the United States, Europe, and other major democracies — to make the hard turn toward a clean energy transition that climate scientists have been urging for decades.

In the short run, it is counterproductive for Europeans and others to buy multi-billions of dollars of fossil fuels from Russia. A current estimate is that Russia will earn $321 billion this year from oil and gas exports, a one-third increase over last year. Imagine fighting World War II while paying the Axis countries massive sums.

President Biden is therefore right to increase U.S. fossil fuel production to help fill this energy gap temporarily.

The recipe for a decisive victory, however, is not mindlessly to “drill, baby, drill.” President Biden should also double down on his commitment to lead an energy transition to zero-carbon energy. He should declare a national energy emergency to turbocharge a climate-friendly conversion of electricity, transportation, buildings, industry, and agriculture, as well as call for cost-saving energy efficiency measures.

This strategy would undermine the geopolitical power of Russia and other authoritarian petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, China. Not for nothing does Vladimir Putin fear a clean energy revolution.

Failing to “invest in our planet,” the theme of Earth Day this year, will not only play into Putin’s hands but will condemn current and future generations to a climate apocalypse.  

Ukraine’s top climate scientist, Svitlana Krakovska, sees the connection between the climate and the war. As Russia invaded her country, she was working to finish the most recent United Nations climate report. She aptly describes Russia’s invasion as “a fossil fuel war.” “I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war,” she says, “and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels.”

Krakovska is right. Climate and democracy hawks should flock together to win what we might call a warm war for the Earth.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides a clarifying moment. The free world should unite to protect both our climate and democracy. China, India, and other governments would then face a choice too: on which side of history do they wish to stand?

Eric W. Orts is the Guardsmark Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Tags clean energy incentives clean energy jobs clean energy transition Climate change policy climate science countering Putin countering Russia Democracy democracy promotion energy politics Geopolitics Joe Biden Russia in the European energy sector Russian economy Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military Russian oil and gas Russian sanctions Strategic Oil Reserve Ukrainian victory

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