Conflict, climate crisis, and energy supply

The invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that relying on fossil fuels has terrible humanitarian consequences. The future well-being of humanity depends on a rapid, durable and just transition to zero carbon, says former government environment and energy policy adviser, and Lewes resident, Dr Martin Meadows.


Revenues from oil and gas-related taxes and export tariffs accounted for 45% of Russia’s federal budget in January 2022.

The export value of Russian piped gas to the EU alone amounts to $400 million per day.

Total export revenues for crude oil and refined products currently amount to around $700 million per day.

On 24 February 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

What do these facts tell us about the link between the climate crisis, conflict and energy supply; and what can we do in Lewes to help make our community, the UK and the rest of the world safer and more secure?


Climate crisis

On 28 February 2022 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest assessment of the impacts of climate change. Hundreds of experts combed through thousands of research articles to synthesize the current state of knowledge. The report’s authors also assessed the world’s progress on and future prospects for managing and adapting to the changed climate. I’ve worked on climate change since the 1990s. This report still surprised me with its final paragraph:

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

It wasn’t the content that surprised me, but the direct and unambiguous language that had been agreed by every government in the world. Although somewhat couched in technical terms, the paragraph above serves as a grim and chilling warning.

In short, the world’s nations must cooperate without further delay to cut greenhouse gas pollution rapidly to zero; also the world must adapt to the already dangerously warming planet. If we fail we will lose the only known environment in the universe where humanity can live. That’s some warning; and no one can claim truthfully that we haven’t been clearly warned.

The necessary response is simple to state but is enormously challenging to achieve. Climate change is caused mainly by carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. The only way to halt additional increasing global temperature is to permanently stop carbon dioxide pollution. It’s physics[1].


Climate Change and Conflict

More than a decade ago the United States Department of Defense recognised that ‘climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked’ and that ‘Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment’.

In February 2022, four days before the IPCC published its latest report, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Consequently, the IPCC report received little media attention. The humanitarian crisis of war in Ukraine and global threat of pollution from fossil fuels are however linked.


Russian fossil fuels

Russia holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves, the second largest coal reserves, and the eighth largest oil reserves. It is one of the largest producers and exporters of natural gas, the third largest oil producer, and the second largest oil exporter. According to its Finance Ministry, Russian oil and gas revenues in 2021 totalled $119 billion.

Russia plays a big role in world oil markets. Russia is the third-largest producer of oil behind the United States and Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest exporter of crude oil behind Saudi Arabia, and the largest overall exporter once products are included.

Russian energy supplies are particularly important in Europe, which receives around 70% of the country’s gas exports and half of its oil exports. Russia in turn relies on revenues from fossil fuel sales, which make up more than two-fifths of government revenue.

Russia’s total export revenues for crude oil and refined products currently amount to around $700 million per day (up to 24 February).

Whilst climate change isn’t a factor in the cause of the Ukrainian conflict, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that relying on fossil fuels has terrible humanitarian consequences and funds wars. The future well-being of humanity depends on a rapid, durable and just transition from a fossil fuel based society to a zero carbon society.


Russian fossil fuel use in the UK

Russian imports account for 8% of total UK oil demand , most of which is used in diesel and jet fuel. Just 4% of UK gas demand is provided by Russia. In the four quarters to quarter 3, 2021, the UK paid Russia £3.6 billion for oil and £559 million for gas.

But the energy market is interconnected and the lack of the UK’s direct dependence on Russian pipeline gas won’t shield us from gas and oil price rises. For example, the price increases that accompany any disruption in Russian pipeline gas supplies to Europe will be quickly felt in the UK as a result of a ‘ripple effect’ in the energy market.


The energy challenge

Using fossil fuels facilitates conflict and human rights abuses. To halt climate change, stop facilitating conflict and protect human rights we need to stop burning all fossil fuels. But we mustn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge.

Fossil fuels provide 80% of the world’s energy needs. Half of the world’s population relies on synthetic fertilizers produced from fossil fuels. Russia was the world’s leading exporter of chemical fertilizers in 2020. Fossil fuels are also used in the manufacture of steel, cement and plastics, materials that form the basis of our lifestyles.

Carbon dioxide pollution from electricity generation in the UK has become much lower due to the replacement of coal fired power stations with gas, renewables and nuclear power. Electricity however provides only 17% of our energy needs.

In 2019 78% of the UK’s energy came from fossil fuels. Despite all the efforts so far, that proportion has changed little over the last few years and the UK’s installation of renewables is slowing.

Most of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions are from transport, heating, the food we eat, the stuff[2] we buy and the services we use. Transport is now the largest single source of carbon dioxide pollution, about the same as in 1990 (the pollution is mainly from private cars).

We’re in a bind because we can’t just move suppliers of fossil fuels, for example by increasing imports from Saudi Arabia and other petrostates or companies. That neither solves the humanitarian nor the climate crises. The inescapable physics of climate change and the humanitarian cost of the impacts of climate change and conflict means we need to rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels. This scale of systemic transformation requires governments and corporations to change. It also requires communities and individuals to adjust their behaviour and do what they can to cut out fossil fuels.

Knowing that most of our energy use relies on fossil fuels and that our energy use is for transport, heating, food and stuff provides a recipe for cutting out fossil fuels.

Broadly, we (meaning the government, businesses, communities and individuals) need to:

  1. use much less energy, make sure the energy we use is used efficiently and use much less stuff;
  2. get off fossil fuels by building a durable zero carbon electricity supply system that provides sufficient energy when needed and is affordable (mainly a role for government and corporations, although there is a role for communities and individuals); and
  3. electrify our lives as much as possible, which mainly means converting most transport to electricity, converting space and water heating to electricity and converting most of industry to electricity.


What can we in Lewes do?

For individuals and our local community the quick and practical things we can do are mostly around changing our behaviour, so we use less energy and stuff. As most of our personal use of fossil fuels comes from transport, heating and consuming stuff, that’s where we need to focus.

Here are a few examples:

  1. The top thing you can do in your home is turn down the heating thermostat one or even better two degrees. The more you turn it down, the more energy and money you’ll save. (But please keep in mind that turning the thermostat down too far may not be safe for vulnerable people).
  2. If you can, improve the energy efficiency of your home. If your property has an energy certificate, you can see how energy efficient your home is and the certificate should recommend specific things you can do to improve it such as insulation, more efficient lighting and appliances, and installing renewable technologies.
  3. Outside the home you can make a big difference by choosing the most energy-efficient type of transport available to you. To help you choose, here’s information on the energy requirements of most forms of passenger transport. Walking wins hands down. Cycling is also a winner. At the other extreme you might be surprised to learn that a Range Rover is much less energy efficient than a Boeing 747. (Other makes of SUVs are available but they all suck[3].) Unfortunately the comparative energy efficiency of a Boeing jet compared to a Range Rover doesn’t mean we can swap gas guzzling cars for flying – that won’t lead to zero carbon; and Russian oil ends up in UK jet fuel.
  4. Using public transport can also save energy and cut pollution, compared to using private transport; especially using public transport powered by electricity.
  5. If you do need to use a car, try using it less and driving more slowly. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has published a ten-point plan of actions governments can take to immediately reduce reliance on oil. Our government at once rejected the advice (despite being a member of the IEA). There are however many things in the plan, such as driving at reduced speeds and driving less, that individuals can do without government action.
  6. Buy less new stuff and where you can reuse stuff, repair stuff and borrow stuff[4].

Transition Town Lewes and Lewes Climate Hub also have a lot of ideas and advice for saving energy and using less stuff.

I recognise that everyone’s circumstances are different and we should choose the best way to save energy for our own situation. But my mantra for everyone’s the same: save energy – which can also save you money – and electrify where you can.

Finally, as transforming a global energy system is beyond just individual or even community action, it’s important to be active in other ways that influence the big changes needed. The energy crisis may tempt some governments to move from Russian gas to even more polluting fuels like coal[5]. Or, as in the UK, come under more pressure to row back on climate commitmentsand start new coal, gas and oil exploration. There is however no credible scenario where any nation can increase fossil fuel production of any kind and for the world to stay below 1.5oC of warming.

The links between fossil fuels, conflict and the climate crisis mean that we need to keep the pressure on our government and businesses to cut fossil fuels from the economy.


  1. An earlier IPCC report in 2021 concluded that all of the warming that the world is experiencing is caused by human activity (see Fig SPM2). The main cause of the warming is carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels and cutting down forests. Not all humans however are equally responsible. The average carbon footprint in the top 1% of emitters is more than 75-times higher than that in the bottom 50%.
  2. Stuff’ means the things we buy and consume, for example clothes, computers, phones, furniture, buildings, white goods, etc. There’s more about how much energy stuff uses here.
  3. SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation. SUVs were responsible for all of the 3.3 million barrels a day growth in global oil demand from passenger cars between 2010 and 2018.
  4. Don’t forget Lewes library for borrowing books and for example Dolly for repairs to clothes
  5. For example: see ‘Germany may extend coal use to replace Russian gas



1 Comment

  1. Chris Yarrow

    How about some signs addressed at motorists in Lewes, such as “Why not walk/cycle to work or school?” “Next time share your journey.” “Breaking = wasted fuel.” And in front of the Leisure Centre and Sports Club “Here for exercise? Walk or cycle next time,” If the bonfire societies can produce banners, surely we can.


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