Are we ready? As Europe moves to a war-footing in cutting its dependence on Russian gas, and the US and UK ban Russian oil, it remains unclear how our countries will make the huge adjustments needed. Voters have no idea what is about to hit them: it might even end with energy rationing.
In two short weeks, Vladimir Putin has prompted a historic increase in Germany’s military spending, the imposition of financial sanctions on a scale not seen since 1914 and a reframing of energy independence from a vague aim to a security imperative. The invasion of Ukraine has exposed the west’s craven dependence on tyrannical regimes to power our economies.
To defeat the Nazis, the US and Britain allied with the USSR. To defeat Putin, we are turning for oil to Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
The path to energy independence was never going to be smooth but now the hard choices are upon us. Confident rhetoric from national leaders obscures the fact that this may be a very bumpy ride indeed.
In 2022, Europe imported about 155 bcm of gas from Russia. The EU’s hastily assembled strategy aims to replace 100 bcm of that this year — but it relies heavily on importing record amounts of liquefied natural gas, which will pit Europe against buyers such as Japan and China. Even if it achieves its aims, and demand falls as a result of high gas prices, there will still be a supply/demand gap of 20-40 bcm, according to the latest estimate from the Bruegel think-tank. This gap will have to be filled with climate-unfriendly coal and, perhaps, in countries that are most exposed to Russian gas, factories will have to close. Bruegel fellow Simone Tagliapietra says this would be “a sort of programmed and limited industrial energy lockdown”.
Blackouts, even when planned, are a world away from the experience of most western voters. And even to achieve these EU goals will require unprecedented co-ordination between governments: they will otherwise end up bidding against each other for gas, just as they did for PPE during the pandemic.
The added challenge is the threat that high prices and volatile supply pose to the careers of individual politicians. For the better part of the 20th century, keeping the lights on was the 101 of political survival.
So far, citizens seem minded to see cutting off Russia as a patriotic duty. A majority of British voters would be prepared to pay higher energy bills if it helps to undermine Russia’s war in Ukraine. Dockers in Kent have refused to unload Russian tankers. If these feelings endure, Boris Johnson may be able to face down the “Net Zero Scrutiny Group” of Conservatives, who have been campaigning for a dilution of green goals. The cancellation of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s planned “power not poverty” rally against net zero policies suggests that the stage could be set for a political rapprochement between environmentalists and those who worry about the soaring cost of living.
Yet this is only if leaders can spend enough to protect poorer families from freezing. And heed the demands of the Insulate Britain campaign to do what successive governments have lamentably failed to: insulate Britain’s damp and draughty homes, which consume over a third of all our gas.
Until now, some of our efforts to tackle climate change have left people literally out in the cold. The right response is to go big. The west needs to redouble its efforts to improve the storage and transmission of renewable power, which currently limits its effectiveness. We must stop any more homes being built without solar panels — and bulldoze the bureaucratic obstacles we put in the way of the civic-minded.
Last month, I received a leaflet from my local council encouraging me to club together with neighbours to install solar panels. I signed up. Several bewildering phone calls later, it seems there have been no changes to planning rules in the decade since we moved in. If you live in a conservation area or listed building, and if the sunny part of your roof faces the street, as ours does, the planners are still siding with Putin.
In today’s Britain, an onshore wind farm can be vetoed by a single objecting neighbour. The government’s heat pump grant has achieved less than a sixth of its target. Meanwhile in Finland, a third of all homes already have heat pumps.
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Rapid progress is possible. In 2012, the UK installed energy efficiency measures like loft and wall insulation in 2.3mn homes. And an intriguing experiment is currently under way, to see if households will ration their power usage at peak times. Led by Octopus Energy and the National Grid, 1.4mn households are getting paid to consume less electricity at certain periods during the day. If results are positive, it could indicate that voters are willing to make small changes that add up to something significant.
The language of national security is much more powerful than prosaic lectures about energy efficiency. It’s worth remembering how President Eisenhower ensured public support for building interstate highways across America in 1956. He described them as not just an easier way to travel, but vital to the national interest: his roads would enable citizens to be evacuated rapidly from cities in case of a nuclear strike.
Leaders can take a leaf out of his book, while also putting in the hard yards to reduce the gap between demand and supply. Defending freedom has its price. Putin underestimated the west’s willingness to accept economic pain. He must not be vindicated.
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