In the long-term, do we need "defossilisation" as well as nuclear disarmament, in the interests of engineering lasting world peace?
(And how does energy security sit with the transition to net zero in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine?)
In the last weeks of February 2022, Putin’s Russian army invaded Ukraine and he launched a ground war, while describing it as simply a “military operation”. This is an informational and propaganda war as much as it is a physical war. However, Putin's war machinery on the ground, in the air and at sea is largely fossil powered. This has “put the cat amongst the pigeons” in debates about decarbonisation, energy security and the role of fossil energy in modern society, including modern warfare.
Fossil fuel advocates are using this as an opportunity to sing the virtues of fossil-powered war machinery in supporting the responses of those opposing Putin’s military aggression. It’s obvious that many anti-AGW disinformation merchants will jump on this bandwagon to fuel their own propaganda campaigns. They are even starting to attempt to silence anti-fossil fuel proponents, by saying things like “this is not the time to be anti-fossil-fuel – we should all be pulling together in our responses to the Russian aggression, and ramping up fossil energy sources in the interests of energy security”.
The war has given such anti-AGW propagandists a new angle. With the current state of war machinery in operation in the world today, it’s hard to argue against the real-world truth that much of the short-term response to Putin’s aggression will also be fossil-powered. This is because much of the world, and especially parts of eastern Europe, are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, not only for powering their military hardware but also for powering their societies.
For a graphic illustration of the energy mix in the most relevant countries see:
So, undoubtedly, the responses to Putin’s aggression will result in a regional uptick in fossil fuel use (and therefore, greenhouse gas emissions) in the short term.
Also, legitimate questions of energy security are being raised, given Europe’s high levels of dependence on imports of Russian oil and gas.
How should we respond, then, to people who say things like "you can’t fight a war with renewables".
One way is to acknowledge that fossil energy is involved in powering some currently available responses. But not all of them.
The information and intelligence systems are two counter-examples of war (and defence) machinery that can be run with zero carbon energy. But we are a long way from countries being able to pursue wars, or defend against them, without any physical military equipment that needs powering (and powering with high power-to-weight ratio energy – traditionally one of the strengths of fossil energy).
This prompts an area of genuine debate. Putin's war machinery is largely fossil powered (where not nuclear powered). Could such warfare be possible without fossil fuels? Could military defence against such warfare be carried out without fossil fuels? These are areas for research and development.
I think there are three timeframes that are useful in analysing the issues:
Given this framing of the debates, it is not inconsistent to continue to campaign for global net zero while also supporting a firm fossil-fuel powered response to Putin’s aggression. Net zero carbon advocates should not be silenced by fossil fuel advocates.
Ultimately, the net zero carbon agenda can be made consistent with an agenda for lasting world peace. It’s only in the short and medium term that some compromises on global net zero might be required in response to the short-term situation with Russia and Ukraine.
So, “can we defend against military aggression without fossil fuels?” is really asking the wrong question which leads us down a backward-looking rabbit hole.
The real question is “do we need mutual "defossilisation" as well as mutual nuclear disarmament, in the interests of engineering a lasting world peace?”
Perhaps this is also something to add to the many existing reasons for "keeping fossil fuels in the ground" - as a strategic contingency for the future, until non-fossil means of powering responses to military aggression by warring nations has been more fully progressed.
In the short-term, fossil fuels are likely to be part of the defensive mix. But in the longer term, will defossilisation be part and parcel of making the world a safer place?
As for any economic arguments against defossilisation, the following is from Ekins and Zenghelis, (2021) "The costs and benefits of environmental sustainability":
"Recent evidence suggests the short-term GDP impacts of well-designed environmental action could be positive, crowding-in rather than ‘crowding out’ the drivers of future growth. This paper provides evidence that not only makes the environmental case for action, in terms of its benefits for human health and welfare, it also shows how such action can generate economic returns in terms of productivity, jobs and income and reduce the costs of meeting any emissions and resource use targets. A cost effective low-carbon, resource-efficient transition can generate a cleaner, quieter, more secure, innovative, and productive economy for all countries at all stages of development."
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.