Another global energy crisis produced a series of political promises to use energy more wisely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked calls for embargoes on oil and gas exports that support the country’s economy, and laid bare the folly of maintaining fossil fuel energy systems that are no longer suitable. This time, world leaders must do what they have repeatedly failed in the past and use the turmoil to make the clean energy shift a security priority. History offers a guide to the risks of doing otherwise.
No two energy crises are the same, but the last one is unusual. It was initially driven by a global pandemic and is the first of its kind in the era of net zero. Yet it was also fueled by war, like some of its more notable predecessors.
The conflict in the Middle East led to the oil shock of 1973 which began when Arab members of OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States for supporting Israel in the Arab-Israeli war. As oil prices soared, the United States and other countries responded with what would become a familiar pattern of efforts to deal with energy market turmoil: conserve energy, boost national hydrocarbon production and find cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed solar thermal panels on the roof of the White House, saying he hoped they would one day show “the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling addiction. to foreign oil”. This turned out to be one of many false starts for a green energy revolution. Solar panels fell under Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, although other measures – national highway speed limits, fuel economy standards – proved more durable.
As it turns out, this century’s shale boom has finally made the United States the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, providing a glimpse of the energy independence its leaders have long sought. Elsewhere, France has long pursued a policy of using nuclear energy as the main source of electricity. However, dependence on hydrocarbon imports from often authoritarian regimes remains an immutable reality for developed economies, as Moscow’s assault on its neighbor has miserably demonstrated. As Western leaders race to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas, they have been forced to consider help from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Meanwhile, the need to accelerate the transition to clean energy has become increasingly acute. A UN scientific report released this month showed the world is on track for a disastrous 3.2°C warming by the end of the century and made it clear that bold action is needed to quickly move away from fossil fuels.
So far, too many executives are doing the opposite in response to soaring energy costs. The administration of US President Joe Biden, who came to power on a promise to champion climate action, has begun a short-term effort to lower gasoline prices. The UK promises to double its efforts in nuclear and renewables, but also opens the door to increased domestic oil and gas production.
Yet any decision that risks locking in new fossil fuel projects for decades to come is a mistake. Rich countries need to help low-income households most vulnerable to high energy prices, but that can be done with temporary tax transfers rather than gas tax cuts and measures that boost energy. use of fossil fuels. Leaders should focus on radical energy efficiency measures and an unprecedented accumulation of low-carbon energy sources. It won’t be free. But the tragedy of war in Ukraine will be compounded if the impetus to accelerate the transition to greener and safer energy is not seized.
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