Russian President Vladimir Putin has given Ukraine a chance to lead the world in the war against the coming climate catastrophe by freeing itself from the autocracy of fossil fuels, a webinar audience heard yesterday.
The Russian invasion has presented a chance for a whole nation to provide a global showcase for new thinking by building back in better ways, using already proven and efficient approaches to make dramatic savings in energy, stated panelists from Razom We Stand, the non-profit behind a new campaign launched by Ukrainian, other European, and U.S. environmentalists.
It might seem like a poignant sermon to preach on the 196th day of Russia’s cruel and sustained assault on an old friend and European neighbour.
But it is based on the assumption that the war must end, and it will not end in the subjugation of Ukraine. When that day comes, the ruined cities, the ravaged industry and agriculture, the fractured energy economy, and the disrupted civic institutions of Ukraine must be rebuilt. So, went the arguments at the virtual round table, the time to start thinking about reconstruction is now.
That requires energy-efficient buildings that need little or no heating, new building techniques to cut the carbon costs of reconstruction, and a new philosophy of energy that puts the vital human needs for food, water, winter warmth, public transport, and communication to the forefront.
“A new energy security must focus on the basic needs first,” said environmental campaigner Kjell Kühne, a geographer at the University of Leeds in the UK. “if you focus on that and do it in an efficient way, then the renewable capacity that we have… is already enough to meet those basic needs.”
The richest 10% of the world’s population “are responsible for half the emissions and half the related energy use,” he added, “so there is a lot of energy being used on luxury things, and very little for the basic needs of the population.”
So the pressure is on to think afresh, use energy more efficiently, switch to renewables, and stop spending on fossil fuels—particularly Russian fuels—as the climate crisis intensifies.
“We need change very fast. This may be a bad thing to say, but Vladimir Putin is helping us realize this in ways that we haven’t quite realized before,” said author, journalist, and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben.
“I don’t think there’s anyone left in the world at this point who doesn’t understand that there is now a tight link between autocracy and fossil fuel,” he told participants. “If you depend on a resource that only exists in a few places around the world, the people who sit on top of those few places are going to end up with more power than they should have.”
As the cheapest option for power generation, renewables offer a new kind of freedom. Nobody can blockade the wind, or turn off the tap of the sun, McKibben added.
“We need people standing up in particular to the big financial institutions, the big banks and asset managers that continue to pump money into the fossil fuel industry, and in many cases quite directly into Russia and its energy resources. And we can do this.”
McKibben argued for swift action, new thinking, and a dramatic change of global course. He envisioned a rebuilt Ukraine as a model for the rest of the world to follow, in a world scarred by increasing climate catastrophe.
“There’s nothing good about having cities destroyed,” he said. “But when it’s done, those cities are going to need to be rebuilt, and when they are rebuilt the opportunity for making Ukraine the absolute showcase for what we can now do is going to need to be a top priority…. The basic bottom line here is speed.”
Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins, whose four grandparents were all born in small villages between Kyiv and Odesa, put the case for building back better with the same urgency.
“Putin’s war focused attention on Europe’s immediate fuel crisis and away from the fundamental energy transformation that it both interrupted and accelerated,” he said. “Yet those deeper energy shifts are truly revolutionary.”
Lovins said innovative thinking could raise ambition, prevent future fuel crises, stabilize economies and the global climate, relieve energy poverty, and speed Ukraine’s reconstruction. With actions that have “blown up” the fossil fuel era, he added, Putin has set in motion all the outcomes he dreaded.
“He has… sped the end of the fossil fuels that underpin his power,” Lovins said. “If we grasp this unique opportunity, as the EU is doing with impressive focus and resolve, then Ukraine’s agony will not have been in vain.”