The Cost of Conflict: the Ukraine War and the Energy Crisis

Professor Alexander Golub (American University) and Paul Gessing (Rio Grande Foundation) debate solutions to the Western energy crisis.
Image design by Vinicius Tavares for DWF. All rights reserved.

How has the War in Ukraine Impacted the Global Energy Crisis?

By Alexander Golub, Professor, American University Department of Environmental Science, and Paul Gessing, President, Rio Grande Foundation

Professor Alexander Golub (American University) and Paul Gessing (Rio Grande Foundation) debate solutions to the Western energy crisis.

The Energy Crisis in a Time of War

By Alexander Golub – Professor, American University Department of Environmental Science

In a time of war, there is only one priority for Ukraine and its allies—winning. But this war has shown that the energy security of Ukraine and its allies is a critical part of the winning strategy. For a long time, Europe has been, and still is, dependent on the Russian supply of fossil fuel while alternatives remain difficult to substitute. So, what can Europe do to meet this challenge?

The Growing Necessity

Disentangling Europe from the Russian energy supply is not a choice but a necessity. In the face of the war in Ukraine, Europe is now using all available means to substitute Russian natural gas and, simultaneously, reduce total energy consumption. Consumption of coal, wood, nuclear, and other readily available energy sources has increased in the short run. The corresponding spike in greenhouse gas emissions is a side effect of handling the acute energy crisis and, unfortunately, will have to be addressed later. 

Renewable energy certainly is a part of the solution. However, focusing only on renewables, energy savings, and energy efficiency will not help Europe to survive this and the following winter. This winter’s energy mix will likely have a larger carbon footprint than a year ago and will be much more expensive. An unavoidable increase in liquified natural gas (LNG) import to Europe will have long-term negative consequences on carbon emissions. However, once terminals are built, they will be in operation for several years. 

What Can We Do?

So, what to do about the emissions spike? For the sake of conversation, let us assume the worst-case scenario: an extra billion tons of CO2 emissions over the next five years. This spike could be dealt with using nature-based solutions. Prevention of deforestation of 2.5–3 million hectares will compensate for this increase, giving breathing room for Europe to achieve emission reduction goals and help to mitigate other global threats like loss of biodiversity.

Additionally, while breaking dependency on one hostile regime, we should not generate a new dependence on other autocratic and potentially hostile regimes. The rapid expansion of alternative energy is the only way to get rid of this dependency. Yet with all the environmental benefits, renewable energy is not reliable and storage is expensive. Fine-tuning supply and demand is a complicated task and a costly solution.

Politicians should think outside the box. Transatlantic cooperation or, more precisely, collaboration among countries that recognize themself as a part of a free world, should go beyond energy independence. It should also reduce vulnerability and carbon footprints of supply chains. Some essential jobs in manufacturing sectors must return to the U.S. and its allies. This transition will take time, but at the end of the journey, we will have a prosperous economy much less leverage from hostile regimes without compromising environmental goals.

Professor Alexander Golub (American University) and Paul Gessing (Rio Grande Foundation) debate solutions to the Western energy crisis.

It’s Time to Prioritize Inexpensive, Reliable, and “Greener” Energy

By Paul Gessing – President, Rio Grande Foundation

The ongoing war in Ukraine certainly threw energy markets into chaos in its initial months. In the intervening time, European nations—many of which like Germany have been leading the shift to “going green”—have rediscovered the need for reliable, affordable energy.

In practical terms, this means replacing Russian natural gas with coal, wood, nuclear, and natural gas imported from non-Russian sources. When push comes to shove, even the “greenest” national governments will choose to their lights on and keep their people warm over a philosophically driven shift to “renewables,” specifically wind and solar. 

“Eliminating” fossil fuels shouldn’t really be a primary strategy at all. Modern society is far too reliant on fossil fuels to completely eliminate them. Instead, the focus should be on balancing affordability and reliability while making tradeoffs that maximize reduction of CO2 emissions. The most obvious way to achieve these goals would be for the rest of Western Europe to utilize the French model of embracing nuclear energy. About 70 percent of electricity in France comes from nuclear power. Nuclear checks the boxes of affordability, reliability, and CO2-free.

Options for Us All

Obviously, large-scale deployment of nuclear energy isn’t going to keep the lights on this winter, but the need for reliable, affordable, and (preferably low or zero carbon) electricity isn’t going anywhere either. And, if policymakers both here in the U.S. as well as in Europe are serious about “electrifying” everything, or anything close to it, nuclear is going to be a major part of the solution.

 “Renewable” electricity generation supplemented by battery storage may be able to fill in a large portion of the gap left by nuclear, but unless massive leaps are made in wind and solar technology, the environmentalists’ preferred options simply aren’t going to cut it on a large scale. Germany, which had already invested massively in “renewables”, was seeing increasing electricity costs before the Russian invasion, and that was with only 28.8% of its generation being from wind and solar. 

Hydroelectric and geothermal are also worth considering as “green” supplements to nuclear for electricity generation, but those sources have their inherent limitations in terms of their geographical deployment. Perhaps their inherent limitations are why hydro and geothermal have their adherents but are by no means the darlings of the environmental movement that wind and solar have become.

What the Future Could Hold

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a surprise, it and its knock-on effects in terms of an energy crisis were hardly the shock many claimed. President Donald Trump warned Germany back in 2018 about overreliance on Russian energy and the dire consequences for its economy and security. I’d recommend that, rather than focusing on unreliable and expensive wind and solar, Western Europe and the United States should be busily working on agreements for a steady, affordable supply of American liquefied natural gas (LNG). This could play a role in both home heating and electricity generation. Ultimately, natural gas could be a bridge fuel to a nuclear future. While radical environmentalists don’t like natural gas, the fact is that it generates less than half the CO2 of coal. Despite its push to “green” energy, nearly 30% of Germany’s electricity was supplied by coal in 2021. In the short-term, abandoning coal may not be possible given the time it takes to move to American natural gas, but once the transportation network is in place, this energy relationship could further cement the U.S./European alliance while freezing Russia out.

Green isn’t going to happen all at once. That’s especially true when China and other developing nations continue building coal plants. The best strategy during this time of geopolitical uncertainty is to keep the lights on and the economy going while planning for a longer-term transition to nuclear.    

Finding Common Ground

By Alexander Golub – Professor, American University Department of Environmental Science

Two challenges exist with the current energy crisis. The first challenge is quickly finding a substitute for the energy supply from Russia. The second challenge is building a long-term energy supply to eliminate dependency on politically unstable and hostile regimes.  

Fossil fuels and existing nuclear capacities are essential in addressing the first challenge. Simultaneously, nature-based solutions could offset a corresponding spike in carbon emissions. Support to tropical nations to reduce deforestation and forest degradation would ensure that a temporary setback will not interfere with long-term goals to prevent climate change.

When Ukraine wins the war, it will be time to think about other challenges and threats to the free world. For example, tension with China and other geopolitical factors can disrupt global supply chains, impacting various industries. Repatriating manufacturing back to the U.S. and Europe could mitigate these risks. And the green transition represents a unique opportunity to build a more sustainable, competitive, and resilient economy, leveraging the synergy between clean energy, advanced technologies, and skilled human capital.

A combination of the green energy transition, with an expansion of manufacturing jobs, could be a common ground for bipartisan support within the United States and Europe. It is time for these countries to demonstrate the ability of a free world to confront complex challenges that affect us all.

The Reality of Power Challenges

By Paul Gessing – President, Rio Grande Foundation

There are certainly long and short-term challenges to the problem of moving toward a zero-carbon future in Europe and around the world. The initial effort needs to be focused on keeping the lights and heat on, preferably with increased use of relatively clean natural gas.  

No matter how we get through the current crisis, the long-term solution to our energy future in Europe (and the U.S.) must include a healthy dose of zero-carbon nuclear power. Other, traditional, energy sources aren’t going away anytime soon, and environmentalists need to recognize the reality of that fact. 

Unreliable power sources like wind and solar, even paired with batteries, simply are not a reasonable solution to the energy needs of Western Civilization. In order to work towards a realistic and reliable “green energy” future, especially when nuclear power is seriously considered for worldwide use, real effort and long-term planning is needed. This will not be a quick or easy road. But it will benefit the world for generations.

If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our Culture Wars series here

Alexander Golub min
Alexander Golub
Professor at American University Department of Environmental Science; founder of Climate Equity Research

Alexander Golub is a leading scholar in climate policy analysis, energy economics, and the economics of climate change. His research focuses on the quantification of the risks and opportunities of emerging global climate policy and transformations of the global capital markets. Dr. Golub has combined work in academia, NGOs, investment banking, and consulting businesses. His academic career started at the Russian Academy of Science in 1984. In 1998 he received a research appointment at Harvard University. Then in 2000, he was appointed as a Senior Economist at the Environmental Defense Fund to work on economic instruments for environmental protection. In 2011, as the Executive Director for Global Environmental Markets at UBS, he conducted a quantitative analysis of global capital markets in the context of pricing carbon emissions and equity formation in response to global and regional climate policy. 

Paul Gessing
President, Rio Grande Foundation

Paul Gessing became the first full-time President of the Rio Grande Foundation in March of 2006. Since joining the Foundation, Gessing has been a prominent voice for limited government and individual liberties in policy areas including: Constitutional liberties, taxes, health care, education, and transportation. Prior to joining the foundation, Gessing headed up the lobbying efforts of the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), a respected taxpayer-advocacy organization in Washington, DC. He has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, US News & World Reports, The Albuquerque Journal, Barron’sand several other major publications. He writes for and appears regularly in media outlets around New Mexico. Paul has also testified in Congress and before a variety of state and local bodies. Paul graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with a degree in Political Science in 1997 and he received his Masters in Business Administration from the University of Maryland. Paul is on the Board of New Mexico Connections virtual charter school.

Leave a Comment

Polarization Detox Challenge
%d bloggers like this: