After realizing the risks his country had taken by depending on Russia oil and gas for much of the country’s energy needs, the prime minister of the UK is planning a major shift to non-fossil-fuel energy.
The Kentish Flats offshore wind farm is one of the United Kingdom's oldest wind power installations. Under a just-revealed strategy for energy independence, there will be a lot more of these in the near future. Photo: Vattenfall, CC
On the eve of the United Nations COP26 climate crisis conference in Glasgow in October, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson proudly announced plans for his nation to shift away from all fossil fuel use for electricity production by 2035.
That was before the Ukraine war, and before the realization that dependence on Russian oil could paralyze the country’s economy in a time of crisis. It was also before Johnson announced plans to phase out all fossil fuel imports from Russia by the end of this year.
While the UK imports just 8 percent of its oil and 4 percent of its gas from Russia, it is still a big enough cut that the country’s economy would suffer without it. To make up for the loss, Johnson said it would be necessary for the country’s oil and gas producers would need to step up production in the short term.
By comparison, Russia currently supplies 27 percent of the European Union’s crude oil needs and roughly 40 percent of its annual natural gas consumption. It plans to phase out roughly three-quarters of its oil and gas imports from Russia by the end of the year, but unlike the UK has no clear plan on how to manage that.
As of yesterday, the UK prime minister’s team revealed high-level plans to wean itself off more than just Russian oil and gas. It intends to shift the country to eliminate all fossil fuel use a lot earlier than its original 2035 plan. It will do so by replacing that energy nearly completely to nuclear power and renewable energy sources.
The most interesting part of the declaration is that this was dictated not by the climate crisis, but by deployment of non-fossil-fuel sources as about the only way the country could become truly independent of other countries’ energy supplies.
The UK’s Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, explained the policy shift last week in a statement released on Twitter.
“This is no longer about tackling climate change or reaching net-zero targets,” he wrote. “Ensuring the UK’s clean energy independence is a matter of national security. Putin can set the price of gas, but he can’t directly control the price of renewables and nuclear we generate in the UK.”
The country’s original plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions originally would have reduced the use of natural gas by 2035 and close to 100 percent by 2050.
As cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament looked into alternatives to supplying the country’s energy needs in the meantime, one alternative the Tory party put forth was to lift a moratorium put in place some time ago on fracking, one of the most toxic means of harvesting oil and gas. Surprisingly, despite the urgent need for more fossil fuels in the short term, that was quickly dumped as an option because the process was still considered unsafe.
In its place is a new plan to greatly expand the nation’s wind farms and nuclear installations.
To increase wind farm production will require reversing policies which date back to when David Cameron was Prime Minister. Bowing to pressure from the fishing industry, which believes harm will be caused to marine life if offshore wind farming becomes more common, Cameron had blocked that growth with regulations which at the time passed easily in the parliament. Under the current circumstances and a newborn wave of support for more renewables, analysts believe the political climate is set to withstand what are expected to harsh pushbacks from the fishing lobbies.
The United Kingdom is far from alone in its quick pivot to accelerate clean energy options as a national security strategy.
Faced with natural gas prices already spiking to its highest price ever even before the phasing out
Even before declaring a plan to phase out most imports of Russian natural gas by the end of 2022, the EU was reeling from gas prices soaring to its highest ever price, of $380 (€345) per megawatt hour. In Germany, once the most vocal of major member economies about needing to keep some of that gas flowing from Russia, the government has – just like the UK – now pivoted to a clean power strategy in the interests of energy independence.
Last week the German government approved another €30 billion (US $33 billion) to finance the transition away from fossil fuels.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said as this was made public that renewable energy sources would provide substantial freedom for the country. He also said shifting to renewables would help revolutionize “the economy, society, and the state”.
In a hint to what was going to be unveiled by Johnson just yesterday, Ed Miliband, the UK’s shadow secretary” for climate change and net zero echoed Lindner’s sentiments in a statement made earlier in the week.
“Energy security is national security,” he said. “Homegrown, clean power is the cheaper, more secure route to energy security and sovereignty.”
The full energy independence plan for the United Kingdom is expected to be ready for public discussion in two weeks.
Up until the last few days, the idea that the nation’s governments would ever unite to rid themselves of dependence on fossil fuels to address the climate crisis seemed a distant dream. How ironic it is that defending national security -- in the presence of the closest thing to a world war since the 1940s – may be what finally forces governments to drastically cut fossil fuel emissions.