March 8, 2022 What Does the Russian Oil Ban Mean for the Clean Energy Transition?

US President Joe Biden announces a ban on US imports of Russian oil and gas, March 8, 2022, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
US President Joe Biden announces a ban on US imports of Russian oil and gas, March 8, 2022, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden announced today that the United States was banning all imports of Russian oil, gas and coal, the latest in a series of severe economic sanctions being waged against President Vladimir Putin for his unprovoked war in Ukraine. The United Kingdom also announced its own plan to phase out Russian oil and oil products by the end of the year.

But breaking ties with Russia’s energy supply is the easy part. It’s what comes next that will be difficult, policy experts say. And exactly how Western countries choose to shift away from Russian fossil fuels will have major implications for the climate.

As the Ukraine conflict puts a squeeze on an already volatile energy market, it is reigniting a decades-old argument over the importance of energy independence and the role renewable energy, such as solar and wind, should play in achieving it.

In the United States, those in the debate have largely fallen into two camps. On one side, two senators from fossil-fuel producing states—Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska—are leading an effort to replace Russian energy imports by increasing domestic production of oil and gas.

On the other side, a group of climate hawks in the House have joined up with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to propose alternative legislation that would also ban Russian imports, but require the United States to replace them with renewable energy over time.

Similarly in Europe, which is far more dependent on Russian oil than the U.S., climate campaigners are urging their lawmakers to hasten the transition to renewable energy and not to increase oil drilling in the Northern Sea as they implement new restrictions on Russian energy.

Just 3 percent of crude oil imports into the U.S. came from Russia last year. Still, U.S. lawmakers are warning the already high energy prices could get even higher. Rising gasoline prices—which hit an average of $4 per gallon in the U.S. this week—are putting massive political pressure on government leaders to find quick solutions for consumers, even if they come at the expense of long-term environmental goals.

Energy analysts say that could be a major problem for the clean energy transition, which is already struggling to meet expectations.

For example, dozens of nations pledged to reduce their dependence on coal power last fall at a major international climate summit. But coal has made a comeback, largely because of Asian countries seeking cheap fuel options amid rising global energy prices. Similarly, development of new solar, wind and hydroelectric energy last year fell far behind what’s needed to meet President Biden’s goal of creating a carbon-free power grid by 2035.

“The energy transition was already in trouble—80 percent of the world’s energy is still from fossil fuels,” Dieter Helm, an economist and professor of energy policy at Oxford university, told the Financial Times.

In the short term, Helm believes both the United States and the European Union will increase their domestic production of oil and gas, moves that will most certainly create new challenges for global  efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.

U.S. production of oil and gas have only increased under President Biden and are expected to hit record highs in 2022 and 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At a press conference announcing the U.S. ban this morning, President Biden said, if anything, the Ukraine conflict should be persuading governments to more quickly transition to renewable energy.

Complicating matters further, China is considering buying or increasing stakes in Russian energy and commodities companies. That news is sure to drive another wedge into the already difficult global climate talks, in which countries have struggled so far to find common ground on how to address climate change and who exactly will pay for the efforts.

Last week, hundreds of climate scientists from around the world released their latest update on the state of global warming, and their report was grim. The world is already experiencing irreversible climate change and humanity isn’t moving nearly quickly enough to adapt, the landmark report said.

António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, didn’t hold his punches when he spoke about the report and what he thought it would mean if the world fails to transition to clean energy quickly enough.

“Delay is death,” Guterres told the room of U.N. delegates in Geneva last week. “It is essential to meet the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Science tells us that it will require the world to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

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