Turbocharging the transition: Ukraine one year later
One year after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, we’ve learned we can move much faster, much more aggressively, to extricate ourselves from fossil fuels.
The emerging consensus is that Putin’s invasion has turbocharged the clean energy transition. The Economist figures it’s been fast-tracked by as much as 10 years.
It’s worth pausing on this bloody anniversary to ponder how different the reaction would have been if the full-scale invasion had happened a few years earlier, before a critical mass of Europeans had been convinced that renewable alternatives to fossil fuels were, in fact, realistic alternatives.
Europe would certainly have scrambled for replacements to Russian fossil fuels, as it did over the past months. But we could not have imagined such a serious drive towards clean energy.
“The European Union now understands that if we want to increase our energy sovereignty, it can only go through renewables,” said Frans Timmermans this week, reflecting on the bloody anniversary. Timmermans is the first vice-president of the European Commission, often dubbed Europe’s “climate czar.”
For the first time on a grand scale, all three prongs of the energy “trifecta” — security, affordability and sustainability — have been pushing in the same direction in one of the world’s major economic powers.
Far from putting clean energy plans on the backburner as the bombs fell, country after country in Europe raised their ambitions for renewable energy in the months after Putin’s invasion.
And it’s not just a matter of ambition, Europeans installed solar panels and heat pumps at record pace. Their politicians moved to ban gas and diesel cars. Just this week, Germany moved to ban gas or oil heating in any renovations or new buildings.
Battery installations doubled in European homes. Several countries saw a doubling of heat installations, as well. There are now over 20 million of the magic boxes installed in Europe. Thomas Nowak, head of the European Heat Pump Association, says: “Now people are asking, ‘Am I the last person with a gas boiler?’”
Europe added 50 terawatt hours of wind and solar power since the invasion, avoiding nine billion cubic metres of fossil gas imports and saving itself 12 billion euros in fossil energy costs.
Despite the uptick in coal burning, the surge in renewables meant that by the end of last year, wind and solar now produce more power than coal or gas in Europe.
Europe has made impressive efforts to overcome the gas crisis this winter – also showing clearly that Russia is losing the energy war— Fatih Birol (@fbirol) February 23, 2023
But as I told 🇪🇺 President @vonderleyen & all EU Commissioners yesterday, there's no time for complacency with a tougher test ahead next winter pic.twitter.com/ThvJh2NMQy
It’s important to recognize the double-edged role of climate change itself over the past year. Europe suffered its worst drought in 500 years — a drought made 20 times more likely by fossil-fuelled climate change. The drought crippled hydropower production and exacerbated the shutdowns of nuclear power stations. France, one of the continent’s biggest exporters of low-carbon electricity, turned into an importer. On the flip side, winter has been relatively warm, reducing demand for heating.
Fossil-fuelled power is projected to plummet as much as 20 per cent this year, which goes some way to explaining the dramatic pivot in the Canadian oil and gas industry’s message machine.
As Russian tanks rolled across the border, oil and gas boosters proclaimed their product a saviour for Europe’s energy crunch. Fast-forward 12 months and the industry is talking about selling LNG to South Korea or Japan (China, it seems, is also no longer felt to be a palatable pitch).
The European acceleration is particularly important because Europe was already the one major region demonstrating success at both cutting emissions and deploying clean energy. And the world desperately needs tangible examples of success.
The acceleration shows how much faster we can move when a crisis is treated as a crisis. “Emergency responses need to look and sound and feel like emergency responses, otherwise, the seriousness of the crisis itself lacks credibility,” Seth Klein wrote this week, underlining the chasm between Europe’s response to Russia and our own response to the climate crisis.
Some of the most powerful examples of knitting together the crises of war and climate change come from inside Ukraine itself. I’m continually humbled by the perspective Ukrainians manage to maintain amidst the carnage, fighting against Putin’s petro-powered invasion as well as the worldwide devastation from fossil fuels.
“Fossil fuels fund Putin's bloody war machine and human rights abuses around the world. A clean energy revolution can prevent a climate catastrophe and protect human rights," said Oleksandra Matviichuk on the anniversary of the invasion. Matviichuk heads the Center for Civil Liberties, the first Ukrainian organization to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
Matviichuk joined a network of Ukrainian groups calling for a transition to clean energy and the seizure of Russian fossil fuel industry assets to be used for “the green reconstruction of Ukraine.”
Razom We Stand, founded by environmental lawyer Svitlana Romanko, launched the network with videos profiling Ukrainian fighters and advocates as well as a Manifesto for a New Ukraine and a New World, Free From War, Free From Fear, Free From Fossil Fuels.
“Today is a terrible day for the Ukrainian people who have been dying under Putin’s bombs for a year,” Romanko says.
“But we stand on and will prevail. Ukraine and humanity’s destiny are uniquely intertwined. Victory over one petro-dictator can spell freedom from petro-colonialism for the entire planet, if we seize the moment to move away from fossil fuels.”
‘Death spiral’ for Enbridge?
Enbridge faces the risk of a “death spiral,” according to a report the company commissioned and filed with the Ontario Energy Board. Kent Elson, a lawyer representing the non-profit Environmental Defence explains:
“As customers switch to electric heat pumps to save on energy, there's less and less people to pay for pipelines, and so rates need to go up. And that causes more people to switch to electric heat pumps to save money, which means there's even less people to pay for the pipelines, and the rates need to go up even further.
“The real risk is to the most vulnerable customers because they would be the ones left holding the bag as rates go up and up and up.”
Trans Mountain did what?
Trans Mountain Corporation bought future carbon credits from a non-functioning Alberta seaweed startup with one listed employee.
It’s almost too bizarre to believe. You might think the federal Crown corporation had more pressing matters at hand, groaning under spectacular cost overruns for its oilsands pipeline to the West Coast. It might have better things to do with our taxpayer largesse. But Trans Mountain confirmed it had “invested in Synergaze Inc. … in the form of pre-purchasing emission offset credits.”
Synergaze proposes to grow seaweed additives for cattle to reduce belching methane. The company won’t respond to interview requests, doesn’t yet have permission to build its proposed factory near Sooke, B.C., hasn’t disclosed what kind of seaweed it wants to grow, nor who would “independently verify” its aspirational carbon credits.
On Tuesday, local authorities recommended against Synergraze’s plans in East Sooke, B.C. Marc Fawcett Atkinson asks, “Are the carbon credits Trans Mountain bought now worth less than cow burps?”
Canadian Oil industry’s ‘net-zero greenwashing’
A new report on the Canadian oil and gas industry finds it is engaged in “net-zero greenwashing.” The London-based think tank, InfluenceMap, analyzed lobbying and advertising and found the industry’s trade association, CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) to be the most opposed to progress on climate policy. The big companies that fund CAPP to be their front group (like Suncor, CNRL and Cenovus) all received failing grades as well.
“Canadian oil and gas companies — and trade associations like the Pathways Alliance and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that represent them — continue to advertise that they're committed to net zero while lobbying against the climate action needed to make this goal possible,” said Catherine McKenna in an interview with Canada’s National Observer.
Suncor goes back to the future
“For all its good talk about reaching net-zero emissions, Suncor’s decision to hire Rich Kruger, the retired ex-CEO of Imperial Oil, as its new CEO speaks so loudly,” writes Max Fawcett. “After all, if you’re trying to build a forward-looking energy company of the future, you don’t usually pull someone from the industry’s past off the golf course to do it.”
And for all the talk about a “Canadian” energy sector with product “Made the Canadian Way,” it’s worth noting the new CEO was installed after Suncor bowed to pressure from the U.S. hedge fund Elliott Investment Management.
Canada’s emissions 2021
While analysts race to quantify European greenhouse gas emissions from last year, we still don’t know Canada’s total from 2021. An “early estimate” from the Canadian Climate Institute (CCI) is that GHGs rose 2.8 per cent in 2021.
Any increase in climate pollution is bad news but an increase in 2021 isn’t particularly surprising since the pandemic precipitated such a big drop in 2020. Emissions for 2021 look to be lower than Canada’s pre-pandemic levels.
Even though emissions increased, the CCI notes the pandemic rebound could have been much worse and “Canada is steadily making progress separating economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.”
“That trend — known as “decoupling” economic growth from emissions — is particularly promising given the rebound in economic growth occurring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the CCI.
The largest source of carbon pollution is the oil and gas industry and it’s also the fastest growing. The oilsands are its biggest contributor, increasing 6.3 per cent just in 2021 — and way more than double its emissions since 2005 (Canada’s baseline year for tracking emissions).
Transport remains the other big and growing sector. Freight vehicles in particular — CCI estimates those emissions have risen 25 per cent above 2005.
Here’s the overall picture (the sharp eyes among you will notice the old y-axis illusion here: it’s a long way down from 620 to zero).
Our octopus teachers
We looked last week at ice melt around Antarctica. Scientists have long wondered whether the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed during the last interglacial period, around 125,000 years ago. It’s an important question since carbon dioxide levels are already much higher than they were then. Global temperatures were somewhere between 0.5 C and 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and sea levels were five to 10 metres higher. Did all that water come from melting ice?
Scientists seem to have answered the question not with geology or cryosphere research but from the DNA of the Turquet’s octopus, which lives in the frigid Antarctic waters. They’ve been around four million years and, today, there are two distinct populations of Turquet’s octopus, one in the Weddell Sea separated by the enormous ice sheet from its kin pulsing around the Ross Sea. Ominously, the two populations were octocoupling about 125,000 years ago.
We present genomic evidence showing the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed during the #LastInterglacialPeriod!🇦🇶🌊🚨#popgen #icesheet #interdisciplinary— Sally Lau (@lausally) February 1, 2023
...the tipping point of future #WestAntarcticIceSheet collapse could be reached even under the #ParisAgreement (+1.5-2.0°C) pic.twitter.com/pSFRSQNBS0
“New research using advanced technology suggests heavy oil facilities in Alberta and Saskatchewan are releasing almost four times the amount of a powerful greenhouse gas than they report to government.”
Study after study shows the oil and gas industry is massively underreporting its methane emissions. One published in 2020 showed “Eight-Year Estimates of Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations in Western Canada Are Nearly Twice Those Reported in Inventories.”
This week, the International Energy Agency’s Global Methane Tracker showed “the oil and gas sector could slash emissions … using only a fraction of its bumper income from the energy crisis.”
“The Nord Stream pipeline explosion last year released a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere. But normal oil and gas operations around the world release the same amount of methane as the Nord Stream explosion every single day,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.
EVs versus gasoline
Barry Saxifrage is out with a chart-filled myth-buster about battery vehicles. Over a full life cycle in Canada, the 70 tonnes of CO2 from burning gasoline “absolutely crushes everything else.”
But what really caught my interest is the analysis of countries like Norway, where EVs have taken over:
“Nearly everything I read in Canada about Norway’s rapid transition away from gasoline cars gets the policy part wrong. The common assumption here is that Norway did it by offering great incentives for buying cleaner electric cars (carrots). But the key to Norway's success has been policies that raise the cost of the dirtier gasoline cars (sticks).
“Their most effective single policy has been a ‘polluter pays’ tax added to new cars. Specifically, they calculate the purchase tax for new cars based on car weight, CO2 emissions and NOx emissions. This can nearly double the cost of buying a polluting gas guzzler. Imagine Canada bringing in an 80 per cent sales tax on big, new gas-guzzling SUVs and you've got the basic idea.
“And a second ‘polluter pays’ policy tag teams with that: Norway taxes gasoline even higher than the U.K. — at the equivalent of $600 per tonne of CO2 emitted.
North America’s tallest solar
“A demolition crew is tearing down the concrete facade of the south-facing wall of the 22-storey Loyola Residence Tower and will replace it with solar panels. Once complete, it will be the tallest solar-integrated building not only in Nova Scotia but in North America,” reports CTV News Atlantic.
"We hope that we don't hold that record very long," said Dennis Gillis, a senior director at Saint Mary’s.
☀️⚡️Watch to see North America's tallest solar wall being installed at @smuhalifax's 22-story Loyola Residence Tower ▶️https://t.co/WIUcs1GALL— Clean Energy Canada (@cleanenergycan) February 24, 2023
Voices from Ukraine
If you’d like to see some of the courageous Ukrainians pushing for an end to fossil fuels, Razom We Stand has just released a video.
“We have to become, and we will become … a leader in building modern green energy,” says President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. Please forward it along and always feel free to write to me with feedback or suggestions for future newsletters at [email protected]
Support for this issue of Zero Carbon came from The McConnell and Trottier foundations and I-SEA.