By Joel Watkins
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 placed Europe’s energy security and the overreliance on Russian oil at the centre of political discourse.
With the US and its European partners convening to consider the prospect of banning imports of Russian oil, one positive outcome of the Ukraine crisis could see the prioritisation of the transition to renewables, whilst simultaneously driving innovation within the energy sector.
With UK fuel prices this week hitting record highs – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the insecurity of energy systems in the UK and the overreliance on Russian oil and gas in Europe. Unlike other European countries, the UK uses relatively little Russian gas, making up only 6% of total UK imports2. However, 28% of the total energy used in the UK is still imported and UK energy prices are closely tied to the European market. Consequently, the increase in cost for consumers at the pump is synonymous with the rise in the global wholesale price of crude oil.
Historically, Russia has used its influence over global gas and oil prices as a geopolitical tool, exemplified during the gas transit crises between Russia and Ukraine in 2006 and 2009, with allegations that Russia was punishing Ukraine for their pro-Western stance and their desire to join both the EU and NATO. Following these events, overreliance on Russian energy was perceived to be a security issue for European countries and subsequently began a transition to renewable energy, with the aspiration of self-sufficiency. Nevertheless, in 2022 global energy markets are still vulnerable to Kremlin manipulation, with Russian gas and oil making up 39% and 30% of European imports respectively4. However, as anthropologists have historically signalled, disasters and crises can be moments that trigger profound social changes.
It may have taken an invasion of a sovereign country, but it would seem that the Ukraine crisis could finally motivate a full transition of European energy systems – evident in the US and Europe’s potential escalation of sanctions, including a ban on the import of Russian oil and gas. Moreover, such crises provide the opportunity for industry innovation. One only has to consider the outcome of the collective focus of government, industry and experts during the COVID-19 pandemic, which enabled the development of the novel RNA vaccine in record time. Comparably, the war in Ukraine could instigate a similar cross-sector collaboration in the UK, developing new innovative ways to reduce import dependency and enable energy self-sufficiency. This could include a continued development of bioenergy, nuclear and wind – which accounted for 21.5% of energy generation in the UK in 20205 – whilst simultaneously pursuing innovative ways to reduce consumption and increase efficiency.
There is no denying that up to this point, pioneering developments in energy systems have been primarily driven by the threat of Climate Change. However, in light of the crisis in Ukraine, the overreliance on Russian gas and oil has added even more urgency to the transition to renewables and the need for innovation of energy systems. Undeniably, a low carbon future – based on a transition of our energy systems away from the reliance on fossil fuel – could be seen as a ‘win-win’ outcome, with both a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and an increase in energy security.