Following Russia's heinous invasion, Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded for Europe to fully embargo Russian oil and gas, writing on Twitter that "buying them now means paying for the murder of Ukrainian men, women and children". The European Commission is due to publish proposals this week to reduce the EU's dependency on Russian fossil fuels. Here in Ireland, we can and should play our part in this effort by accelerating efforts to reduce our consumption of oil, gas, and coal.
Russia is one of the world's largest exporters of fossil fuels, which accounted for half of its export revenue in 2021. Recent spikes in energy prices have been a windfall for energy producers, and energy-importing countries sent up to $1 billion to Russia each day during its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia gains financially from these exports, supporting its war effort. It also benefits from crucial geopolitical leverage, weakening the impact of Europe’s response.
It is essential therefore, both for prudence and for solidarity with the people of Ukraine, that Europe plans to live without Russian fossil fuels.
Even though overreliance on fossil fuels is at the root of the problem, recent commentary has focused on measures here which would support this dependence: a dedicated import facility for liquefied natural gas (LNG), and offshore exploration for oil and gas.
Urgent climate commitments alone require a rapid reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, described by UN secretary general António Guterres as “an atlas of human suffering”, offered a stark reminder of the urgency of transitioning away from fossil fuels. Nearly half of humanity is highly vulnerable to climate change already, and this proportion is projected to increase.
Even setting aside the imperative for climate mitigation, diversifying our fossil fuel mix is not a magic bullet.
Energy security is as much about prices as physical availability and neither an LNG terminal nor new gas development here would reduce energy bills: we pay the global market price irrespective of the source.
Furthermore, our gas imports do not originate in Russia, but from the North Sea and the global LNG market via an interconnector with Britain. Fortunately, this makes us far more resilient to the threat of a cut in Russian gas supply than continental Europe. However, policymakers do need to consider the security of the physical connection to Britain and the threat of a gas network emergency there, including the possibility that British gas would need to be diverted to Europe.
In Ireland, we have demonstrated the power of collective effort in the face of injustice
Similarly, issuing licences for oil and gas exploration is far from guaranteed to enhance energy security. The Kinsale gas field took eight years from discovery to production; Corrib took nearly two decades. Given these timelines, any new discovery is likely to be brought onshore at a time when Ireland's fossil fuel consumption must be much reduced, and in the face of huge opposition from climate activists.
In any case, it is unlikely that offshore exploration would bear fruit. Despite 50 years of exploration, there have been only four commercial gas discoveries, and no commercial oil discoveries.
Nuclear power will not be technically or societally feasible this decade.
A credible energy security plan must therefore put lowering fossil fuel dependence at its core, by accelerating the deployment of renewables, which we have in abundance, and reducing energy demand.
We must harness our strong expertise and track record in wind energy. The technology is mature and getting cheaper rapidly. Complementing this, solar power is a significant and underutilised resource. Farmers can also play a crucial role in supplying bioenergy sustainably to enhance national energy security efforts.
While natural gas consumption needs to fall, new natural gas-fired power generation capacity is needed to back up renewables and to replace dirty coal-, peat- and oil-fired power generation, until there is a zero-carbon alternative. Developing natural gas storage in case of a disruption in supply, or to co-ordinate a strategic release, would be prudent. Accelerating the development of alternatives – battery storage, green hydrogen, and flexible demand – is also urgently needed.
The wave of technology and institutional innovations in the energy system that followed the 1970s oil crises show that rapid transitions are possible in times of great need.
Reducing overall energy demand must also be part of this strategy. People who can cycle or take public transport, or those who live in highly insulated homes, do not experience the same impacts on their cost of living as people who are dependent on cars, or whose homes leak energy. Similarly, less energy-intensive industries are more resilient to energy shocks.
Power of the collective
In Ireland, we have demonstrated the power of collective effort in the face of injustice. In 1987, Ireland was one of the first countries to ban completely the import of South African goods because of public pressure in support of the Dunnes Stores strikers, led by Mary Manning, who refused to handle goods in protest at apartheid.
In solidarity with the people of Ukraine, individuals, communities, and businesses can play their part in a collective effort to reduce quickly fossil fuel consumption. But they need to be led and supported by Government. The recent national retrofit scheme is an important and welcome step in this regard but more needs to be done. It will be crucially important to protect those on low incomes so that those worst off aren’t further disadvantaged as we make this necessary transition. Moreover, we need a large-scale communications campaign from Government to frame our energy transition explicitly in terms of the need to cut Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuel.
Now is the time to harness the outpouring of public support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russian military actions by accelerating the sustainable energy transition on all fronts.