Ben Heatley, Managing Partner at Copper Consultancy discusses how the UK should respond to war in Ukraine, suggesting that it should be a catalyst for more rapid change in the country’s energy system.
The world has looked on in horror as scenes of violence and destruction have emerged from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The crisis is humanitarian, and every effort must be taken to bring pressure on Russia to halt their aggression, so that focus can move to supporting the millions of Ukrainians who have been bereaved, injured and displaced.
Western nations have responded swiftly, seeking to exert economic and political pressure on the Putin regime, in an attempt to force a change in strategy, and to limit funding to the Russian armed forces.
There is a significant limitation to the West’s plan, namely Europe’s reliance on Russian oil, and particularly gas. Some Eastern European nations are almost exclusively supplied with Russian gas, while Germany and Austria receive about 50% of their gas supplies from Russia.
On the surface, the UK is not as dependent, receiving approximately 5% of our supplies from Russia, but that doesn’t tell the full story as we live in an interconnected world, and it’s challenging to distinguish exactly where gas that arrives via pipeline has originated from.
One response to this crisis, will inevitably be to seek to increase supplies from the North Sea and Norway, along with LNG supplies from Qatar and elsewhere. However, that is a short term solution that will not address the fundamental challenge of an overreliance on one country for our energy supplies. It will also not enable us all to transition to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.
The International Energy Association has produced a ten point plan to reduce the use of Russian oil and gas, while accelerating the transition to net-zero. As a country, the UK needs to take every opportunity to enact these recommendations, so that we can put greater pressure on Russia, and accelerate our own transition to an affordable, reliable, sustainable and self-sufficient energy system.
The good news is that we are already in line with a number of the EIA’s recommendations. We are planning a transition away from gas boilers, we are expanding renewable energy systems with offshore wind and solar schemes booming, and we do have a strategy to support the nuclear industry, particularly by backing small modular reactors.
We must move faster to support the UK’s energy market at a time of enormous uncertainty and price rises, and to play our part in international relations. Renewable technologies not only represent the most environmentally sustainable solution, but they are also the most affordable and self-sufficient options.
Making rapid progress in our own energy independence also sends a message to Russia that we are preparing for a future where dirty, carbon intensive, imported fuels will no longer be necessary, and therefore cannot be used as a high stakes bargaining chip.
In practical terms, that means the Government making clear and decisive policy decisions to prioritise a rapid transition to clean energy independence. It must come forward with the long expected National Policy Statements on energy, giving clear and unequivocal backing to renewables and nuclear power, and transmission upgrades. The Government must emphasise that at a local level, planning authorities should support solar energy schemes as a means to get additional clean energy into the grid quickly. The Government must also rescind the moratorium on onshore wind in the England, as a clear statement of intent.
At a domestic level, far more needs to be done to insulate homes and install heat pumps in place of gas boilers. The hydrogen and district heating industries must also be further supported to play their part in decarbonising domestic heat.
Some commentators have suggested that the UK should reinvest in domestic gas production, and possibly even fracking, in response to war in Ukraine. There may be a small role for increased domestic supply from the North Sea. But in the long term this is seriously flawed logic, as it only serves to tie the UK further into a hydrocarbon based energy system, which is interconnected to Russia and has faced unprecedented price inflation in recent months.
The future isn’t about replicating the past. Instead we must accept the compromises inherent in the need to genuinely shift from an unsustainable system, to a sustainable one. In that process, we must all make compromises, by accepting that new energy infrastructure will impact us all in some way with views and landscapes changed, and our homes altered.
We must simultaneously do more to support the poorest, helping them to weather short and medium term price rises far more effectively than we have to date.
In the second world war, the UK was encouraged to dig for victory, in order to supplement domestic food supplies and reduce reliance on imports. That initiative saw parks, playgrounds and gardens transformed into allotments. We face a very different situation today, but in order to tackle the combined threat of climate emergency and energy insecurity, we may need a similarly united national effort to achieve our goals.
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