The war in Ukraine has brought to the fore the question of who owns our energy. Many European countries are suddenly uncomfortably aware of how reliant they are on Russian oil and gas. And while increasing numbers of people struggle with rising energy bills, fossil fuel companies are raking in record profits. Saudi Aramco recently overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable company.
These events take place against the backdrop of the climate crisis. Transitioning away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources is the solution to increasing energy security, lowering bills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The technologies to bring about this transformation largely already exist and their costs are falling rapidly. Greater amounts of solar and wind power are coming online, and electric vehicles are becoming a more familiar sight on our roads. Yet, this transformation is happening far too slowly to deal with the challenges facing the world.
“Renewables are the only path to real energy security, stable power prices and sustainable employment opportunities,” Antonio Guterres, the “Europe’s war begs the question: Who owns our energy?” UN secretary general, said in May. He was responding to the grimly predictable news from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2021. Sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification – caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide – also reached new highs last year, underlined the WMO report.
These findings highlight how out of step we are with the task at hand. Climate science proves the world should be reducing emissions to have a chance of limiting global warming to the internationally agreed “safe” level of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In 2021, the UK enshrined in law the hugely ambitious target of slashing emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. In addition to stressing the need for more clean energy, Boris Johnson’s government is pushing to open new oil and gas fields in the North Sea as a reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
On the back of the WMO’s announcement, Guterres called for companies and governments to “jump-start” the energy transition, tripling private and public investments in renewables and ending fossil fuel subsidies, which amount globally to around $11m a minute.
The invasion of Ukraine has given renewed impetus to the energy transition in the EU, given that many countries are highly reliant on Russian fossil fuels. The European Commission announced plans on 18 May to raise its renewable energy target for 2030 from 40 to 45 per cent. It also called for significantly more investment in wind, renewable hydrogen power, energy efficiency measures and heat pumps. While the plan was welcomed by most climate campaigners, they were also quick to point out that it contained provisions for new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Governments must ensure that homes and businesses can continue to function, but it is also their job to protect people. Just as it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who are suffering from high energy and food bills today, it will be the same sectors of society that will suffer most from the extreme weather that results from delaying the ramping down of fossil fuels. A report released in April by the UK Environment Agency concludes that people from more deprived areas “disproportionately face more flood risk” than those living in wealthier areas.
Who owns our energy systems is the key question for leaders as they decide how to support economies post-Covid, deal with the implications of the Ukraine war and the cost-of-living crisis, and squarely face the need to transition to a renewables-powered society. Ignoring it, or relying on business-as-usual solutions, will only cause more pain and suffering, for people and economies.