It's Time to Say Goodbye to Putin and the Fossil Fuel Industry

In recent weeks, the White House has taken measures to boost fossil fuel production and undermine the fight against climate change.

Image of a person walking alongside their bike with a cardboard handmade sign stored in the back that reads "No to Putin's Gas & Oil"

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Amid the carnage in Ukraine, European and British citizens have been urged to lower their thermostats to help save energy and deprive the Kremlin of the funds it needs to buy the weapons that are killing scores of innocent civilians every day. 

At first sight, the link between your thermostat and the Ukraine invasion may look tenuous but publicly available data show that our insatiable appetite for energy is stoking the climate crisis while funding autocratic governments in Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, to name but a few.

The numbers don’t lie. Russia made over $240 billion by exporting fossil fuels in 2021, much more than Moscow had anticipated because natural gas and crude prices have been surging since countries began lifting pandemic restrictions. That is nearly $660 million a day, much of which goes into the Kremlin’s coffers thanks to taxes and royalties, but also because state-owned oil company Gazprom has a stronghold on natural gas exports. 

This is devastating for the environment not only because fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide when they are burned, but also because Russia’s fossil fuel industry is to blame for huge emissions of methane, a gas that is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is being justly vilified for the carnage in Ukraine but when it comes to the ongoing energy crisis that has pushed gas prices to new records, the Kremlin is just another piece of the jigsaw. Over the past 18 months, demand for energy has boomed in most countries, including China, the world’s most populous nation and its manufacturing hub, and in the U.S., partly because citizens are demanding more energy to power their homes and increasingly large cars.

A study by Ember, a not-for-profit think tank, estimated the surge in global electricity demand last year at 1,414 terawatt-hours, “approximately the equivalent of adding a new India to the world’s electricity demand.”

The world already produces about two-thirds of its electricity by burning fossil fuels and many countries are trying to meet this additional demand by burning more coal and gas to generate power. As a result, global emissions from the power sector reached an all-time high in 2021.

Mutually Assured Destruction

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, much of the world is trying to stop buying oil, coal, and natural gas from Russia to punish the Kremlin while trying to secure additional fossil fuels from elsewhere to meet this increase in demand. The problem with this tactic is that countries could become so “consumed” by the task of securing these fossil fuels that they will neglect the transition to renewable energy, U.N. chief António Guterres said in March.

“This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction,” Guterres added.

The White House in March decided to stop importing Russian oil and blamed Moscow for the hike in gas prices, saying that “because of Putin’s war of choice, less oil is getting to market, and the reduction in supply is raising prices at the pump for Americans.” But instead of accelerating the clean energy transition, U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen to cozy up to fossil fuel companies in a bid to lower gas prices.

A street stencil by artist 1GoodHombre depicts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gripping submachine guns, with a gas station at right, on March 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Gas prices have increased significantly following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, California is home to around 112,000 residents of Ukrainian descent.
Street artist 1GoodHombre paints in support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy near a gas station with prices that have increased significantly following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

The prevailing logic is that increasing supplies will push gas prices down. To that end, Biden has taken a rash of measures to boost fossil fuel production. He has urged oil-exporting countries and U.S. energy firms to extract more oil, ordered the release of crude from the country’s strategic reserves, announced a plan to boost natural gas exports to the European Union and decided to reopen federal lands to fossil fuel extraction. 

In combination, these measures are a huge endorsement of the fossil fuel industry and a major setback in the fight against climate change.

So while European countries discuss boosting renewables and increasing energy efficiency, the U.S. is embracing fossil fuels and the White House has not tried to coordinate an effort to slash energy consumption

The U.S. generates about 61% of its electricity by burning fossil fuels and despite Biden’s plans to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, official data shows that demand for coal and natural gas to produce electricity will continue increasing until at least 2023. Indeed, the Energy Information Administration forecasts that “petroleum and natural gas [will] remain the most-consumed sources of energy in the United States through 2050.”

Per capita, electricity generation in the U.S. is twice as high as in the E.U., in part because many Americans live in large single-unit family homes that are not well insulated and require a lot of energy for cooling and heating. That means that to decarbonize its electricity sector, the U.S. will need to build twice as much new renewable energy capacity as the E.U.

So, although Biden is trying to boost renewable energy generation, higher demand for energy is hampering progress and could ultimately prevent the U.S. from slashing emissions over the next decade.

Bonanza for Fossil Fuel Companies

In the meantime, our unquenchable thirst for energy is leading to a huge windfall for fossil fuel companies. After BP said in February that its 2021 profits had surged to an eight-year high of $12.8 billion, the CFO of the British energy giant, Murray Auchincloss, said that “it’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with.”

The likes of BP, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom, and Mexico’s Pemex, as well as leading U.S. and European oil companies such as Exxon and Shell, are some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, and the more money they earn, the more they will invest in operations to extract, refine, and transport fossil fuels.

Ordinary citizens play a big role in this. When we buy fossil fuels, we become cogs in a system that siphons billions of dollars to oligarchs and dirty fossil fuel companies while spitting out huge amounts of greenhouse gases that will cripple future generations and destroy the natural world.

Governments must usher in transformative policies to ensure we move away from fossil fuels but the economic ties between fossil fuel companies and politicians run deep. In exchange for trillions of dollars in subsidies every year, fossil fuel companies pay politicians huge amounts of money in political donations.

What can ordinary citizens do to slash energy usage? A lot. We could buy low-consumption heat pumps to heat and cool our homes. We could weatherproof our houses and buy energy-efficient appliances. Some of us may be able to install solar panels at home, while those living in states with liberalized energy markets can buy their electricity from clean energy power companies. We could ditch gas stoves and replace them with induction ones. We could stop driving gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. We could fly less. Some of us may be able to bike instead of driving. We could also eat climate-friendly diets, instead of energy-intensive food products such as beef and heavily processed meals.

The options are endless and the beauty of this effort is that you can always mix and match. 

Slashing our energy consumption may sound like a small thing but small actions add up, and research shows that if about 25% of the population leads the way, the rest will follow. This alone won’t be enough to solve the climate crisis; we also need to continue protesting the abuses of the fossil fuel sector, vote for climate-conscious politicians like Boston mayor Michelle Wu, and hold oil companies accountable for their crimes.

The world also needs to build scores of solar and wind energy facilities to ensure that we can produce clean energy but we are failing to do that—in part because energy consumption is growing at a faster rate than we can build new clean energy plants, which can take many years.

So yeah, even though it is obvious that individual changes won’t singlehandedly solve the climate crisis, they do help, and regardless, it does feel good to flip the middle finger at Putin, as well as the fossil fuel companies that are profiting from the destruction of our planet. 

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