Ukraine invasion ‘puts zero-carbon rocket boosters’ on need to transition to clean energy

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has injected new urgency in the need to wean western Europe off fossil fuels and transition to clean energy, experts have said.

The invasion has seen Germany halt approval of the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and prompted fears of a further rise in gas prices, which will come on top of the existing cost of living crisis.

One analyst said this had put “zero-carbon rocket boosters” on the case for a rapid transition away from climate-altering fossil fuels and towards clean energy.

Following a first round of economic sanctions on Russia following the invasion, Boris Johnson said on Thursday we must "cease the dependence on Russian oil and gas that for too long has given Putin his grip on western politics".

Russia currently provides 40 per cent of the EU’s oil and coal, and around 20 per cent of its gas.

But those figures are much lower for the UK. Just 1.5 to 3 per cent of our gas is piped from Russia, and we are not dependent on Russia for oil, with the US and Norway providing most oil to Britain.

However, all the oil and gas we do buy is done so on the international market – even the supplies from the North Sea, or from fracking if it went ahead – so pursuing fossil fuels at home would likely make a minimal difference to prices.

Dr Jeff Hardy, an expert on energy policy at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute, told The Independent that sanctions on Russia’s energy exports would likely squeeze the market, putting up prices for consumers, and therefore bolsters the argument for greater levels of renewables contributing to the energy mix.

"The [existing] Nord Stream pipeline, which runs across Europe from Russia, ultimately to the UK, brings a reasonable amount of gas into Europe, but from the UK’s perspective isn’t that important at all.

"But obviously the crisis we’re currently seeing has resulted in yet another jump in gas prices because other countries are more dependent upon that pipeline – particularly Germany, to some extent Poland, and countries where they’re getting a significant proportion of their gas from that pipeline.

"Gas supplies will become tighter, particularly if there are sanctions or withdrawal from getting gas from Russia by any member states. The gas requirement will still be there, so it will have to come from somewhere else. It will tighten the market."

He said the energy implications of the invasion had "put a lot of impetus behind the need to get away from gas and fossil fuels generally, in the UK".

"That is the long term plan and what the net zero strategy entails. I think this puts zero-carbon rocket boosters beneath those plans," he said.

Dr Jasmine Cooper, also from the Grantham Institute, told The Independent: "The UK in general does have good energy security as it gets its fossil fuel energies from a wide variety of sources, so it doesn’t lock us into dependence with one particular country. However, some countries in Eastern Europe are dependent on Russia for all of their natural gas. For those countries the situation is very important."

She suggested that short term demands for gas could see market prices in the UK rise in response to any Russian squeeze on supplies, but she also warned that this could depend on how long the invasion and subsequent instability could last.

Dr Hardy noted that the UK could not do anything immediately in terms of stopping using gas, as 85 per cent of homes are heated by gas, and the country still relies on it for a significant amount of energy and it remains a crucial resource for many industries.

Nonetheless, the introduction of more ambitious policies can make a significant difference in hastening our departure from fossil fuel dependency.

He said: "The first thing we need to do, and get a lot of momentum behind, is to use less energy generally.

"High prices for energy should be a sign to government to get very serious about energy efficiency in homes and in businesses, and bring down that overall energy use – the cheapest way to burn gas is to not need to burn gas.

"Secondly, because we are reliant upon gas for electricity, we need to reduce that reliance, and the best way to do that is build a lot more renewables very quickly.

"We’re not going to switch away from gas boilers overnight, but we need a really credible plan that sets out how in ten years once existing boilers are reaching the ends of their lives, the next alternative is going to be gas-free. We don’t have that strategy in the UK at the moment. We have the aspiration, but not a firm strategy that sets out how we’re going to do it."

Associate Professor Steven McCabe, a political economist at Birmingham City University, said the impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine could already be seen on the economy.

“Crude oil is up 8 per cent to $105 a barrel. The price for next day delivery of gas is up 40 per cent. This will mean we pay far more for fuel for our vehicles and heating our homes."

Asked about whether fracking and further drilling in the North Sea could help provide us with cheaper homegrown energy, Dr Hardy said: "No, it’d make barely any difference at all. It would just lock in the expensive gas prices. It’s not economic… it’s a hard no."