Energy transition through war – How Russia could push Europe towards a climate-protective energy policy
Russia under Putin has not only fallen far behind politically, economically and socially, but its massive exports of gas and oil, two terrible CO2 emitters that make up the bulk of its exports, mean that its energy policy also represents an orientation that has long since fallen behind in light of climate change. At just over $250 billion, Russia’s government revenues are only slightly higher than Belgium’s, and its GDP per capita in 2015 was just over $11,000 compared to about $65,000 in the U.S. and $82,000 in Switzerland.
In Russia, it is the natural resources that make up the most important base for the country’s economy. We do not hear much technological innovation from it. For example, as the largest natural gas power, it has 32 percent of all natural gas reserves in the world, as well as 12 percent of all crude oil reserves. For its part, annual production volumes have so far accounted for about one-fifth of global natural gas production and one-tenth of global oil production. This makes Russia by far the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and the second largest exporter in crude oil after Saudi Arabia. No wonder that the share of exports of crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas constitutes about 60% of Russia’s total exports. In other words, energy exports bring in the most money for the country. These forms of energy also account for more than 50% of the government’s budget.
For the European West, on the other hand, the situation is exactly the opposite. Germany and Italy import almost 50% of their needs of natural gas from Russia (Switzerland buys almost the same amount), Finland even 94% (European average is about 44%). And also the Russian oil share is in Germany about 40%, and in the entire EU approx. a quarter of the oil came from Russia. In Switzerland, on the other hand, the oil share is almost zero, there most of the oil comes from Nigeria and the USA (but in Switzerland the amount of money that the Russian oligarchs deposit there is particularly high, with which the Swiss banks earn good money).
And now Russia has started the first war between two peoples after the Second World War against Ukraine and meanwhile lets it increase in brutality. It is therefore hardly surprising that demands for an import ban on Russian oil and natural gas from the West are becoming louder and louder, especially from the USA and England, which have already implemented it themselves (but they are in fact not affected at all, on the contrary, they would even profit massively from a far-reaching boycott as natural gas and oil exporters). The rest of Europe continues to import gas and oil from Russia, as they are de facto dependent on it. But this is happening under increasing nervousness, after all, the demand comes from the U.S., whose possible economic sanctions would hit many countries, including Germany, particularly hard.
But despite massive self-interest on the part of the U.S. and Britain, the two governments there have an important point: Western European imports are central to Russia’s war chest. Many of the oil exporters are state-owned corporations and transfer profits to the Kremlin. As we know, natural gas and oil revenues are de facto the most important building block of the Russian budget, including the war chest. Thus, many politicians in Western Europe are already thinking about how to get rid of dependence on Russia. And now comes suddenly from some mouths, from which one could not imagine this before (e.g. from parts of the FDP in Germany), demands for an expansion of alternative forms of energy such as wind, water or solar energy (although this can of course not happen overnight). But what more significant cause could there be that should motivate us to massively accelerate the expansion of alternative energy sources than getting rid of our dependence on evil dictators like Putin?
And de facto there is a huge potential here. The decision with which primary energies we satisfy our hunger for energy is the key factor of climate protection. How high will the share of fossil fuels still be in the future, further burdening the CO2 balance? And to what extent can renewable energies replace oil, coal and natural gas? In addition to public acceptance, the answer to these questions depends on the economic viability of renewable energies. And for the economic viability, in turn, the efficiency of the corresponding power plants is of great importance. Thus, scientists and engineers are constantly pushing further the efficiency of photocells, geothermal power plants and biogas plants (only wind turbines are already close to the physical limit). Thanks to fascinating technological developments, expectations have been exceeded again and again over the past decades.
And there are furthermore a few real „game-changers“. „We tend to overestimate the impact of technologies in the short term and underestimate them in the long term,“ wrote American researcher and Stanford professor Roy Amara as early as in 1975. That’s still the case today. In the short term, we are dazzled by the prospects of new applications – one might even say new toys. But few people have any idea how much technologies that researchers are working on today will actually shape our lives in the future – scientists and engineers are not exempt.
With the known developments, global climate neutrality of our energy consumption is already within reach, and it depends on the political will to implement the technological innovations. If, however, a new technology were to be developed that is not yet in use today, or even not yet (widely) known, this would perhaps be possible in an even shorter time. If a technological wildcard will indeed save us from a total climate catastrophe in the next few years, we may not even have a clue today what it will look like. But because wild cards do not fall out of the sky overnight, it may well be that preliminary stages of new technologies that will – perhaps – one day change the world are already worked on today in some of the world’s laboratories and think tanks. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at some of these potential wild cards:
- A wild card for energy production: Nuclear fusion as unlimited, clean and safe energy at reasonable prices
- A wild card for energy storage: rechargeable batteries that store wind and solar energy at will
- A wild card for energy consumption: When 3D printing makes the transport of goods superfluous
- The meta joker: Optimizing energy generation, storage and consumption through artificial intelligence
Probably the most important wild card candidate for future energy production is nuclear fusion. It is the process that makes our sun and all other stars shine and sends enormous amounts of energy into space. Atomic nuclei fuse together under very high pressure and at correspondingly high temperatures. Just as in the fission of heavy atomic nuclei, a little mass is lost in the fusion of light atomic nuclei. According to Einstein’s famous formula E=mc², tiny amounts of matter are transformed into enormous energies. The energies released per unit of weight during nuclear fusion are even much higher than during the reverse process, nuclear fission. In addition, there is no dirty, radioactive waste! This is exactly where very exciting developments are taking place at the moment (as I described in detail in other articles and in my last book).
But also in energy (electricity) storage there could be huge advances in the next few years (many times better storing batteries), 3D printers could save enormous amounts of transport energy and AI could make complex energy storage and control much more efficient. So there is definitely a lot of reason for hope in this regard. So perhaps the war initiative by energy-archaic Russia is a very good opportunity to focus all our efforts (and funding) on just that now.