Will the conflict in Ukraine shift us to a post-fossil world?

Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels could see the power of despots such as Putin considerably weakened, writes Rupert Read.

A mural protest against Putin
Rupert Read

The shocking onset of the crisis in Ukraine – with Russia’s criminal, murderous invasion – has shown dramatically the downside of depending upon petro-states to keep us warm. While the climate crisis will, of course, over time sweep everything that we hold dear away, unless we address it with far more seriousness than we yet have. 

We can address these two crises of our time simultaneously by investing right now in a massive expansion of green energy and energy efficiency (including, crucially, insulation). We need to make this switch to a significant degree before next winter. That is when Putin will potentially have the West over a barrel, if it turns out to be a cold one.

Anything less than making this switch at speed and scale will make us more vulnerable to petro-authoritarians, will much worsen the cost-of-living crisis, and will continue to condemn our children to climate nemesis. The stakes couldn’t be higher. We could decisively turn around our fossil fuel dependency this year, in 2022. In the wake of the possibilities for a more local, less hyper-mobile, less materialistic, more community-social future that the Covid crisis showed us is real, this is a hopeful as well as a terrible moment that our civilisation finds itself in.

For suddenly, millions are looking up. Suddenly it is making sense to millions that we should have gone green years ago; that we have made ourselves fatally vulnerable by not moving away from fossil dependency. But this point needs to be thoroughly landed. Bad actors like ‘NetZeroWatch’ are making ludicrous propaganda from the situation; they are pretending that now is the time to go for gas or coal. No. If you stay part of the international fossil markets, and thus lock in demand for carbon-based energy, then you are directly or indirectly supporting the Putins of this world. Because of the international nature of the fossil-energy market, taking more gas or oil or coal out of the ground here does not mean we get to use it here. It will simply be sold to the highest bidder. Only reducing our energy usage and energy-waste, and producing energy that is and will stay ours – such as onshore wind, solar hot-water, tidal energy, etc – offers a way forward. 

The only real energy freedom is going to be the freedom that comes from weaning ourselves off the fossil curse altogether: via energy-demand-reduction (including through relocalisation), energy efficiency, and real renewables (Memo to Germany et al: large scale biofuels and biomass burning is NOT renewable). Moreover, and crucially, these can be brought online far quicker than new fossil energy.

There are roughly three scenarios now facing us:

  1. Nuclear catastrophe. Now more possible than it has been since the Cold War.
  2. Slower climate-induced catastrophe, in a world of fracturing supply lines, fracturing democracies, and petro-authoritarianism. This path is as things stand the most likely. And it may be harbinged by potential nasty food shocks during the coming year, shocks potentially to be brought on by the addition of the Ukraine crisis to an out-of-control food system already stressed by Brexit, Covid, and climate decline. This is a great moment to get serious about building food resilience where you live.
  3. A decisive and swift transformative shift towards a post-fossil world. 

Can we take path three? Covid showed us how we can change everything at pace if we take the urgency seriously. The Ukraine crisis is showing the same, and with even more pointed relevancy to the climate crisis: for it hinges on fossil power, without which Putin’s Russia is nothing. There are no longer any financial barriers to making these dramatic changes, as this thread brilliantly shows.

Thus it really cannot be stressed strongly enough: this moment is one of those rare potential pivot-points in history. The remorseless increase of carbon concentrations will not allow us many more chances such as this. As the penny drops inside a billion heads that we have enabled Putin by being held hostage by his fossil economy, there is a real chance that we could actually dramatically change course. The climate ‘emergency’ has not proved pressing enough for human heads. But when its incipience is suddenly buttressed by a petro-dictator smashing through International Law, grabbing Europe’s biggest ‘breadbasket’, putting nuclear power plants recklessly at risk, and seeking to demolish democracy, and as we wake up to having increased the chances of this by allowing him to blackmail us over energy, that could be enough. Enough that we actually do change course.

Really reducing reliance on fossil fuels this year will make for a safer world for all.

Let’s make it so.