The War in Ukraine: Is It a Boon or a Bane for the Future of Climate Change and Clean Energy Transition?
PK Khup Hangzo, Associate Fellow, VIF

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a major rethink in the energy policies of countries worldwide and it lent more political momentum to faster deployment of renewable energy and decarbonization. For European countries in particular, it underscores a national security rationale for weaning off from fossil fuels. Conversely, the war in Ukraine could derail climate action. As countries scrambled to diversity their sources of energy supplies, they are leaning more on fossil fuels. Although this is deemed to be a short-term or stopgap measure, it could entrench the dependency on fossil fuels. For India, the war in Ukraine offers stark lessons on the perils of depending on fossil fuels. It also underscores the need to change course and hasten the transition towards clean energy for the sake of national security as well as the climate.

A Boon

The war in Ukraine has led to a reevaluation of Western countries’ reliance on Russian oil and gas. Europe relies on Russia for about 25 per cent of its oil requirements, 45 per cent of its gas requirements, and 45 per cent of its coal requirements.[1] It is much higher for Germany, Europe’s largest energy consumer and Russia’s most important customer. Russia now supplies about 33 per cent of its oil, more than 66 per cent of its gas, and 50 per cent of its coal.[2] In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, weaning Europe off Russian oil and gas has become an urgent security imperative and it provided renewed incentive to accelerate the adoption of clean energy. On 8 March 2022, the European Commission unveiled its new energy strategy, explicitly designed to slash the EU’s reliance on Russian gas by 66 per cent this year and entirely by 2027.[3] The strategy, known as REPowerEU, included diversifying gas supplies through higher Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and pipeline imports from non-Russian suppliers, larger volumes of biomethane and renewable hydrogen production and imports; and reducing faster the use of fossil fuels in homes, buildings, industry and power system and addressing infrastructure bottlenecks. It was hoped that this energy strategy would drastically accelerate Europe’s clean energy transition and increase its energy independence from unreliable suppliers and volatile fossil fuels. Meanwhile, on 6 April 2022, Germany’s vice-chancellor and minister for economic affairs and climate action, Robert Habeck, unveiled his country’s plans to “turbocharge” the expansion of renewable energy sources “at sea, on land and on roofs.” [4] The plan, if implemented, would enable Germany to produce at least 80 per cent of its energy with renewable sources by 2030 and to nearly 100 per cent by 2035. Similar efforts are underway in countries like the UK and the US. Clearly, the war in Ukraine and growing concerns about energy security has led European countries, as well as others, to reconsider their timelines to transition from fossil fuels as a matter of urgency. That could have a profound impact on the world’s race to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to a tolerable 1.5ºC by the end of 2100.

A Bane

Until such time as more renewables come online, countries will continue to depend on fossil fuels. In response to a shortfall in gas availability, European countries looked to increased domestic production of coal and reopening of coal-fired power plants. That has given a new lease of life for a fuel that had been headed for the exit thanks to rising concern about climate change. For example, Germany, which generates about 25 per cent of its electricity from coal, aimed to end coal use by 2030. But the country has now announced a coal reserve to secure supply. It has also delayed the final closure of some coal plants, keeping them on standby for longer to reduce its dependence on Russian gas imports. [5] Greece, which generates about 10 per cent of its electricity from coal, aimed to end coal use by 2023. It now aims to boost coal mining and extend the operation of its coal-fired power plants to 2028. Poland, which generates about 70 per cent of its electricity from coal, aimed to end coal use by 2049. Now, even that distant target is being questioned.[6] Meanwhile, the US has sought to expand its imports of oil, even considering countries previously regarded as pariah states, such as Venezuela and Iran. Domestic US oil and gas production from fracking and drilling is also set to ramp up. While the renewed focus on coal and other fossil fuels is seen as a temporary measure, or a short-term energy security solution, there are fears that it might create long-term dependence and upend Europe’s and the world’s decarbonization plans. It could also lock in greenhouse gas emissions for many years to come and that could put global targets on the climate out of reach.

Also, the perceived need for greater military spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could prompt countries to rethink their priorities. Investment in climate mitigation and adaptation therefore could find themselves on the back burner. But militaries are highly energy-intensive. For example, the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of oil and correspondingly, the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases in the world. Its greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 exceeded those of entire industrialized countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Portugal. [7] Thus, the increased focus on defence and security could accelerate energy consumption and push up emissions while diverting resources away from climate action.

The war in Ukraine could also imperil global cooperation over climate change. Greenhouse gases can only be eliminated, and global decarbonization achieved, if countries work together. Russia has a vital role to play as it is a major producer of fossil fuel. As of 2020, it is the second largest producer of natural gas in the world (17 per cent of global output) after the US and the third largest producer of oil in the world (12 per cent of global output) after the US and Saudi Arabia. [8] There are fears that responses to its invasion of Ukraine by western countries could dampen its enthusiasm for international cooperation over climate change and decarbonization.

What it Means for India

India is not a major buyer of Russian oil and gas. Its oil imports from Russia in the first nine months of the current financial year were only 0.2 per cent of its requirements. [9] As such, disruption of energy supplies from Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine does not affect India’s energy security directly. However, the war in Ukraine has also triggered a dramatic spike in the price of oil and gas worldwide and that is a cause for concern in India. India is the world’s third largest energy consuming country after China and the US and is highly dependent on imports. In 2021, it imported 85 per cent of its oil requirements and 54 per cent of its gas requirements primarily from the Middle East.[10] Thus, India is highly vulnerable to shocks in the global energy market. And there are tentative signs that the current global energy shock could affect the country’s ambitious clean energy transition. During the United Nations Climate Change conference (COP26) that was held at Glasgow in the UK in 2021, India pledged to increase its non-fossil fuel capacity to 500,000 MW/500 GW and produce at least 50 per cent of its electricity with renewable energy sources by 2030. Furthermore, it also pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2070. India has made significant progress on this front. As of February 2022, renewables accounted for 26.88 per cent of its total electricity installed capacity of 395,607.86 MW/395.60 GW.[11] While coal continues to be the largest source of electricity in India and accounted for 51.54 per cent of its total electricity installed capacity as of 28 February 2022, its share will decline progressively as more renewables are added in the coming years. However, the ongoing global energy crisis could prompt India to further increase its reliance on coal which it has in abundance. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman alluded to this when she noted that “The dependence on coal, and the speed with which we want to get out of it, will now be challenged.”[12] Even if India temporarily increases its reliance on coal, and other fossil fuels, to address the energy crisis, it should not lose its sight of its stated objective of eventually transitioning away from fossil fuels. If anything, the war in Ukraine and the ensuing global energy crisis should serve as a warning against excessive dependence on fossil fuels and hasten the deployment of renewable energy in India.

Endnotes :

[1] “REPowerEU: Joint European action for more affordable, secure and sustainable energy.” European Commission. March 8, 2022.
[2]Wilkes, William, Vanessa Dezem and Arne Delfs. “Germany Faces Reckoning for Relying on Russia’s Cheap Energy.” Bloomberg. March 5, 2022.
[3] “REPowerEU: Joint European action for more affordable, secure and sustainable energy.” European Commission. March 8, 2022.
[4] “Germany presents new Ukraine-accelerated renewables plan.” DW. April 6, 2022.,of%20its%20energy%20with%20renewables.
[5] “Traffic light coalition wants to suspend the shutdown of coal-fired power plants.” RBB24. March 24, 2022.
[6] “Poland will not give up coal soon, suggests Sasin.” Business Insider. April 4, 2022.
[7]Crawford, Neta C. 2019. “Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War.” Cost of War. Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Brown University. November 13.
[8]Bokat-Lindell, Spencer. “What the Ukraine War Means for the Future of Climate Change.” New York Times. March 16, 2022.
[9] “India imports less than 1% oil from Russia: Puri.” The Hindu. March 21, 2022.
[10] “India imports less than 1% oil from Russia: Puri.” The Hindu. March 21, 2022.
[11]Central Electricity Authority (CEA). 2022. “All India Installed Capacity (In MW) of Power Stations (As on 28.02.2022).” Installed Capacity Report.
[12]Lakshman, Sriram. “India’s move away from coal hampered by Ukraine war: Nirmala Sitharaman.” The Hindu. April 19, 2022.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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