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War is no excuse to stop the fight against climate change

A war bond can help fund alternatives to Russian fossil fuels
April 7, 2022

We are too hooked to go cold turkey overnight. Russia is home to the most valuable cache of fossil fuels on the planet. Coal, oil, gas—it has them all, and they are cheap to get at. Putin’s economy and his war effort are funded by our addiction. Yet European sanctions have at the time of writing not been applied to these commodities. How do we kick the habit while still keeping the lights on?

The least painful solution would be to quickly source alternative supplies from other countries. Coal will be relatively easy to replace: it is a highly traded commodity and the flexible infrastructure to deliver it is in place. Oil and gas, however, are a different matter—winding their way deep into our continent via pipelines. They are like arteries feeding our vital organs of industry and commerce, as well as our homes; protecting us from the cold and keeping our hospitals, factories and power stations humming. The upshot is that across Europe, more non-Russian coal will be burnt. Yet this can only be a short-term fix, since coal emits more carbon than gas, making our already overheated planet still hotter.

The true rehabilitation treatment is to ditch fossil fuels altogether. But how can political parties propose to do this quickly and still get elected? Clearly, Europe should first ensure it does not lose any more of its existing clean power: it would, for instance, be reckless of Germany to continue with its plan to close its nuclear plants later this year. What we really need, however, is more of the clean stuff, and a plan to get low-cost capital into the hands of everyone willing to deploy it. A war bond should be raised and directed to all investments that reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

In the UK, we’re fortunate in that we already get more than 60 per cent of our electricity from secure nuclear, wind, hydro and solar. Though gas is still in the mix, we have very low exposure to Russia—we have already cut imports of Russian coal from around 20m to 1.5m tonnes per year over the last decade. So the best domestic prescription is to continue on course, while increasing investment in clean power projects. According to Carbon Brief, 650 solar and wind projects already have planning permission, but they need financial de-risking to unlock investment—a potential task for the new UK Investment Bank.

Where we are most exposed to Putin is in our reliance on Russian diesel for transport. A recent study by New AutoMotive found that close to one in every five litres of diesel used in the UK originates in Russia. We could quickly choke this off by opting not to travel, reducing speed when we do, or taking public transport. Ditching diesel and moving to electric vehicles is another obvious solution, but this requires a different kind of financing that reaches individuals. In Scotland there are government-funded, zero-interest loans available—why don’t we do this across the UK?

Combatting climate change requires a wartime footing. Now that we have an actual war, we have absolutely no excuse

In terms of gas for heating, we are not reliant on Russia (around 4 per cent). The simplest thing we can do to reduce consumption is turn down the boiler flow temperature and our thermostats, and—as soon as the weather allows—switch off our gas heating systems. Draught-proofing and insulation is important, even if some of it needs upfront capital.

Ultimately we need to switch to electric forms of heating, including heat pumps and advanced storage heaters and induction hobs. Government policy should provide affordable finance to households, but it could also trigger a massive switch by obliging upstream energy companies to shift their business models to avoid a windfall tax . They will not do so without being compelled to, as they are raking it in from the price increases even as their production costs remain unchanged.

In terms of industrial uses, we should bring forward, and extend, policies to limit use of plastics (produced from fossil fuels) and plough money into alternatives. To increase our food security we also need to decouple fertiliser production from gas. This can be done by investing in ammonia from clean hydrogen, via electricity. Generators are often stopped when there is an oversupply on the grid, so instead they could be creating hydrogen during these lulls. And we can use post-Brexit agriculture policy reforms to pay for this, since gas-free fertiliser would clearly be a use of public money for public good.

“War is the father of all things,” as Heraclitus once said, and many have argued the need to get onto a wartime footing to combat climate change. Now that we have an actual war, we have absolutely no excuse. There is already a government- backed Green Savings Bond—why not put a rocket under it and get it focused on the urgent task in front of us? Let’s get moving.