In the last thirteen days our world has changed utterly. We have been unwilling bystanders to a truly mediaeval war in which peaceful, innocent people have been bombed out of their homes because their next door neighbour wants to turn the clock back to restore historical boundaries and powers. The result is the most serious humanitarian crisis In Europe since the 1940s. We are all horrified to watch the never ending images of death, destruction, but also the pitiful images of the sick, the disabled, the young, the dying and the extraordinary number of refugees fleeing their homes to the West. Our response is rightly to make Russia a pariah state, with which we will not trade, allow travel to or from, and to target key individuals with punitive legal and financial sanctions.
Except that it’s not that easy. Russia supplies some 40% of the west’s oil and gas, and several large European countries feel unable to stop buying Russian energy because of the huge damage it would do to their economies. So we continue to buy Russia’s oil and gas at inflated prices, that were caused by the outbreak of war, and effectively fund Russia’s war effort.
And until last week the war had completely eclipsed any thought of climate change, until the IPCC’s latest assessment report was published on 27th February and predictably, mostly ignored by the mass media. The report says the planet will reach the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, precipitating the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.
When I say that the world has changed utterly, I am of course referring to political geography. However, it’s true to say that societal change has so far been primarily impacting on Ukraine and it’s immediate neighbours, and to a lesser extent the rest of Europe. But this will change. For most of us in Western Europe we will be welcoming hundreds of thousands and even millions of refugees. We are and will continue to welcome them regardless of how many arrive (except for the UK, but that’s another story). This will put a serious unplanned load on public finance. But even so, the impact of refugees will be less serious than the impact of cost inflation on energy. So for now the UK, Germany, Holland and others are putting the brake on cancelling Russian oil and gas imports because they are taking the approach of minimising their own societal impact.
I argue this tactic is catastrophic. It hands control back to Russia. Instead Europe should plan to cancel oil and gas supplies in the very short term; in fact immediately. We should use this strategy to force and accelerate our response to climate change, something that, despite all the warnings, hasn’t happened for decades. So this is a major opportunity that we should seize.
I heard an interview yesterday with Caroline Lucas, the sole Green Party representative to the British House of Commons. Caroline is a very cogent advocate for green strategy. But when asked how to address the looming oil and gas crisis she argued, “build more wind turbines!” Strangely she focused exclusively on the supply side the problem. I suggest that while we have to sort the supply side, the massive opportunity is in the demand side. Following last year’s COP meeting in Glasgow there is unquestionable public support for change in energy usage, not just in the UK, but throughout Europe.
Let me give some examples of what we need to do:
- Reduce speed limits on roads. There have been various studies that suggest this single change could save significant fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. An authoritative EU report showed 12 – 18% fuel consumption and emissions by reducing maximum speed to 110Km/hr. As an emergency measure we might anticipate a maximum speed of 90 Km/hr to have proportionately greater savings.
- Dramatically reduce cost of public transport. Interestingly reducing maximum speeds provides a powerful argument for switching to public transport. With the added incentive of cost saving, we could again envisage proportionately greater fossil fuel and emissions savings.
- Change motor taxation schemes to favour low milage and penalise high milage. Increase tax on personal fuel consumption and provide discounts or rebates on business fuel consumption that is directly linked to the cost of living index.
- Provide (business tax based) incentives to make “electric car sharing” highly attractive, to both accelerate transition to EV usage, AND incentivise single or no car ownership.
- Encourage (with grant and tax incentives) transition to electric home heating.
- Provide home and business heating energy usage incentives and disincentives to influence both immediate behavior (reduce thermostat setting) and investment behavior (insulation, electric heating systems etc).
- Encourage (by price and tax incentives) behaviour based usage pattern for heating plans that allow gas suppliers to manage down gas usage and introduce a form of planned rationing.
- Provide all consumers with generous grants for transitioning away from fossil fuels, making it clear the level of generosity will decrease year on year. In other words act now!
These are just some ideas and examples. But most of these could be implemented very rapidly. And if we were listening to the climate scientists these types of schemes would already be in widespread usage.
But in the very short term, when we stop using Russian gas and oil, rationing is high probability.
Frankly so what? Compared to what the Ukrainians are living through, fuel rationing would be a small inconvenience. And the abrupt shock of rationing would be a great stimulus to consumers and business to cut dependency on fossil fuels. As I finish this piece I note the UK has just announced they are committing to end use of Russian fuels by the end of the year! Clearly the UK government hasn’t got the message yet – we all need to share the pain!