We are in a climate and energy crisis.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showcased the need for transformational action today to reduce our collective carbon addiction. This report has been aptly labelled a “Code Red” warning for our planet’s security. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion highlights the enormous geopolitical risk in relying on oil and gas from petrostates. The Russia-Ukraine war grinds on, while much of Europe remains heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. Europe’s Russian energy dependance has thwarted a full-throated Western response designed to isolate Vladimir Putin’s economy and war machine. Thankfully, Europe is undergoing a fundamental rethink of its energy sources and future energy partners. But the dual challenges of the moment – the climate crisis and Putin’s energy-related leverage – highlight the need for states to adopt a comprehensive approach to energy policy that considers both climate change and geopolitical risk.
Climate Security Meets Energy Security
Climate change is an existential crisis that requires an immediate, transformational shift away from fossil fuels — a point reinforced in stark terms in the IPCC’s Code Red climate report. Independent of the Russia-Ukraine war, climate mitigation efforts are pressurizing all nations to unshackle their respective economies from fossil fuel usage. Russia is an authoritarian petrostate and has been for some time. Indeed, the U.S. National Intelligence Council assesses that there are 20 such petrostates, defined as nations reliant on fossil fuel extraction for over half of their export revenues. These 20+ petrostates will resist global decarbonization efforts, a geopolitical reality highlighted in last year’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change:
[M]ost countries that rely on fossil fuel exports to support their budgets will continue to resist a quick transition to a zero-carbon world because they fear the economic, political, and geopolitical costs of doing so.
Resistance to this clean energy transition complicates the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals to dramatically decrease global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and keep global temperatures below 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrials levels.
In light of the Code Red climate report and Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that these two crises — climate security and energy security — must be addressed together.
How Has the United States Addressed Energy Security?
The United States once imported over 60 percent of its oil, but it has since become a net exporter due in large part to the development of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology. For most Americans, the long lines at gas stations in the 1970s are but a historic footnote and reflect a time when the U.S. economy was heavily reliant on external energy sources.
The United States today is far more energy resilient than its European and NATO allies. This has allowed the United States to act relatively aggressively in response to Russia’s multiple invasions of Ukraine via several executive actions designed to punish Putin by targeting Russia’s energy sector.
First, since 2014, U.S. presidents have used their powers under the National Emergencies Act (NEA) and International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to sanction Russia. Following Russia’s illegal Crimean annexation in 2014, President Barack Obama declared the situation in Ukraine a national emergency, placing the first round of sanctions against Russia. This Ukraine national emergency declaration has been renewed every year throughout the Obama, Trump, and Biden presidencies — a rare example of bipartisan agreement. This emergency declaration remains in force today, and each successive administration has ratcheted up pressure as Russian aggression continued.
In February 2022, President Biden expanded the Ukraine national emergency declaration, prohibiting new American investment in Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine. On Mar. 8, 2022, Biden banned the complete importation of Russian oil and coal into the United States. In April, President Biden used his emergency authorities to prohibit any new investment in the Russian Federation.
Second, in March 2022, President Biden invoked his authorities in the 1950 Defense Production Act (DPA) to bolster U.S. investment in clean energy technology. The DPA is a Cold War-era statute designed to shore up the American industrial base for national security. In doing so, Biden declared that the clean energy economy — to include the production of large-capacity batteries — is essential to U.S. national security. Further, he made a presidential determination under the DPA that mining for critical battery materials is “essential to the national defense.” In doing so, he required the Secretary of Defense to conduct feasibility studies with the goal of expanding domestic battery production capabilities. Finally, the president waived certain statutory requirements on price and delivery date with the goal of facilitating expedite domestic mining and battery production.
Where Does the United States Go From Here?
The DPA could be further expanded to address two related energy-security matters — something that the administration has already expressed an interest in pursuing.
First, the United States lags China in acquiring cobalt and other rare earth minerals essential for battery production and clean energy technologies. The Department of Energy has declared cobalt the “highest material supply chain risk for electric vehicles.” Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chinese companies own or finance 15 of 19 mines. Within the United States, cobalt mining remains underdeveloped. The DPA could be used to jumpstart research and development and domestic mining of critical mining technologies. To be sure, mining imposes environmental costs and impact, but they’re increasingly outweighed by the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for transformational action to accelerate the clean energy transition.
Second, the president could tap into the DPA’s emergency authorities to increase federal loan guarantees to the clean energy sector. He could do this based upon the existing national emergency declaration already in place against Russia.
Any use of emergency authorities should be scrutinized and emergency declarations have not been without controversy. Republican congressmembers are concerned that use of the National Emergencies Act to address energy security could serve as a stepping-stone for a broader climate emergency declaration. In April, Republican congressmembers introduced the Real Emergencies Act — designed to block the president from making a climate emergency declaration. Still, in light of what is required to reduce GHG emissions, such emergency powers should be considered, particularly if they are tailored to incentivize clean energy development, sidestepping civil libertarian concerns.
Europe’s Energy Security Challenges
Europe’s energy security challenges are immense. Despite recent pledges to move away from Russian energy, as of this writing Europe relies on 25 percent of its oil, 40 percent of its natural gas, and 50 percent of its coal from Russian suppliers.
Europe’s largest economy, Germany, cannot follow Biden’s lead and halt Russian oil and gas imports with a stroke of a pen — doing so would bring the German economy to its knees overnight. This is an energy and geopolitical vulnerability that Putin is eager to exploit. And within those constraints, Germany has made mistakes that exacerbated the problem. Following Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Germany increased its reliance on Russian natural gas. The New York Times reported that Germany imported 35 percent of its natural gas prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea. At the time Russia invaded Ukraine, that figure had risen to 55 percent. Imagine if Germany had aggressively shifted its economy away from Russian oil and gas after the illegal Crimean annexation. How might that affect their overall approach to the current Russia-Ukraine war?
Other European nations (Hungary, Finland, Bulgaria) rely on Russia for more than 75 percent of their oil. It appears that Finland will seek NATO membership soon, doubling NATO’s land border with Russia. It remains to be seen whether Russia will weaponize its energy sources to punish Finnish accession to NATO. The country has already cut off natural gas to two NATO members, Poland and Bulgaria. And Putin has already stated that he will redirect Russian energy exports to “the rapidly growing markets of the South and the East.” India and China stand to gain from this energy pivot if the price is right.
What Does the Russia-Ukraine War Mean for Future Energy and Climate Security Efforts?
First, the United States and Europe should closely watch how China and India respond to the ongoing Russian energy disruption. As I have argued before, all roads lead to China for future international climate progress. China is, by far, the largest GHG emitter and energy market in the world. India is the third largest GHG emitter. Unlike the United States and Europe, both China and India’s emissions are growing. So, too, is their appetite for cheap energy. They stand to gain from the energy disruption affecting the West as Putin looks for fresh energy markets. The Russian-Ukraine war offers another sobering reminder that future climate progress is more and more dependent on China and India’s clean energy transition. True, NATO member states cannot force China and India to make a clean energy transition. Still, they can help lead the way in developing affordable clean energy technologies. This can facilitate a global clean energy transition for China, India, and the developing world.
Second, the Russia-Ukraine war will impact international climate governance efforts. In COP26 in Glasgow, India and China fought against efforts to “phase out” coal power and fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, both nations insisted that the Glasgow Climate Pact text be changed to “phase-down,” reflecting their continual reliance on coal power for economic growth. All eyes will be on China and India’s energy choices as we approach COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt later this year. While the Code Red report should energize climate negotiations with an increased sense of urgency, Russia’s aggression and relative isolation will clearly impact future climate negotiations.
Outside the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Russian invasion will thwart the U.N. Security Council from making substantive climate security progress in the near future. Russia has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and has historically resisted Security Council efforts to address climate change. That resistance will harden. In December 2021, Russia vetoed a Resolution proposed by Niger and Ireland to declare climate change a “threat to the peace.” Until the Russia-Ukraine war is resolved, any future Council action on climate security appears a non-starter. This geopolitical landscape makes it doubly important for countries committed to clean energy to lead the way domestically and find opportunities for alliances with like-minded countries.
Third, our dual energy and climate crises may force nations to reconsider the role that nuclear energy — particularly small modular nuclear reactors — can play in alleviating energy and climate security concerns. Of course, nuclear energy is not risk free, as bona fide concerns remain about nuclear waste disposal. Further, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan showcased that nuclear plants are vulnerable to tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. And Russia’s attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine shocked the world as we narrowly averted a severe nuclear accident. But a balanced energy policy must also consider the risks that come from non-nuclear power sources. Following the Fukushima disaster, Germany accelerated its phase-out away from nuclear energy, and relied on coal power and more Russian oil and gas. The upshot? Less energy resilience – including less negotiating leverage against Russia in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war – and more carbon emissions.
Nuclear has several additional benefits that are of renewed importance as we attempt to narrow the emissions gap. Nuclear power remains the only carbon-free energy source that can be operated on sovereign soil, 24 hours a day. It allows countries to increase energy resilience while making strides toward the Paris Agreement’s goals. The International Atomic Energy Agency makes this point explicitly, stating that “[a]ll low-carbon energy technologies, including nuclear power, are needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals.” Further, a recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at 1,000 scenarios for the United States to achieve net-zero emissions domestically. Nuclear offers the most affordable path to achieve this goal.
To have a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals, all nations will need to think boldly about all new technologies, to include green hydrogen, floating offshore wind technology, and small modular nuclear reactors. Climate change and the clear need for transformational energy action is reshaping the world’s risk calculus in the face of a growing emissions gap. Are we weighing the risks associated with nuclear energy appropriately in the face of irreversible and catastrophic climate harm? This is a weighty, but increasingly important, question.
With an arsenal of nuclear weapons, and a European continent still reliant on Russian oil and gas, Russia enjoys outsized power. For countries that seek to constrain Russian power, shifting away from fossil fuels from Russia and other petrostates is an important step to reduce Russian influence, make other nations more energy resilient, and keep the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals alive. Accelerating this clean energy transition offers a rare geopolitical “win-win.” The resultant reduction in GHG emissions keeps alive the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals Celsius (win) while firewalling countries’ economies from Russian oil and the whims of a ruthless dictator (win).