The conflict in Ukraine has created an energy crisis and a resource crisis. Russian exports account to 3.6% of global coal consumption, 7.0% natural gas consumption and 5.8% oil consumption (see Supplementary Information). A large portion of these exports go to Europe. Russia supplies 40% of the European Union's natural gas, almost 50% of its coal, and one-quarter its oil. Russia is reducing gas exports to countries which will not pay in rubles. Oil and gas are in short supply as prices are rising and gas are at record highs.
How can countries reduce their Russian energy imports in light of these sanctions and economic sanctions against Russia? How can they reduce their Russian energy imports while simultaneously addressing climate change? Both require immediate action. The two agendas can overlap, however.
The solution to energy shortages is to reduce energy demand. Grow more food, fly less, and lower the thermostat. Demand-led solutions can be efficient, fast, and inexpensive. This was demonstrated by Cape Town's 2018 drastic reduction in water consumption during severe drought in South Africa. These measures, if implemented carefully and supported by policy, can reduce future greenhouse-gas emissions, climate risks, and dependence on Russian exports.
Governments seeking to increase domestic oil and gas supplies, as well as to ship or burn coal, may not take these steps. This could slow down the fuel-price spiral. They, along with all others, will suffer even more economic loss from climate change in the long-term. Russia's invasion in Ukraine shows that sustaining the old world economy will only lead to more resource shortages, empowered dictatorial regimes, wars, and climate-related destruction.
This article outlines a series of lifestyle, structural and social changes that could decrease European dependence on Russia's fossil-fuel imports by 20-60% in a year. This approach could be adopted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member states in east Asia and Europe to lower global greenhouse-gas emission by as much as 2.9% in 12 months. It assumes 4-9% reductions in emissions in end-use sectors. Further savings in the industry and power sector are also possible. It would also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% compared to current policy commitments by 2050.
These numbers are based on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1 IPCC)1 as well as the International Energy Agency (2 IEC). The latest summary of the IPCC for policymakers4 explains how structural changes, social choices, and changes in behavior can reduce emissions from fossil fuels. It shows how these factors can be combined to cut carbon emissions by as much as 5% in high-income countries and 40-70% by midcentury.
Transport, buildings, and food production are the three central sectors (see "Cut reliance, curb emission"). The challenges include changing behavior and social norms, ensuring that policies are equitable, and overcoming economic inertia. Some measures, like banning cars in city centers, can be implemented immediately. Some measures, like banning cars from city centres, can be implemented immediately. Others may take longer such as overhauling the food system. Year after year, the benefits of retrofitting and adopting new technologies will continue to accrue.
Although such solutions aren’t new, the conflict in Ukraine has made it more urgent and appealing to implement them politically and socially. To make low-carbon an obvious choice, it will take more than individual choice. Regulation and market interventions are required.
These 5 steps (see SI to get details) could replace 60% of world oil imports from Russia within a year (4.7 million barrels per hour in 2021), and reduce the transport sector's greenhouse gas emissions by 4%. They are most effective in China and the OECD countries, which have the greatest greenhouse gas emissions and have the most power to act. They are easy to implement and fair. They also support economic and political stability.
Encourage telecommuting. Global greenhouse gas emissions from land-based transport dropped by 40% when people who were able to work from home during COVID-19 lockdowns. You also get to save time by not having to travel, have a better work-life balance and are able to take fewer sick days. Governments should require that employees can work remotely for at least half the time, depending on the task, and with some contact at the office.
Two, lower speed limits. The square root of speed increases energy consumption. A speed limit of 120 km/h or 100 km/h-1 on German roads would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from light vehicles using highways (2.6 Megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent and 5.4 MtCO2e per year, respectively; SI). A global reduction of speed limits for cars or heavy trucks by 10 km/h-1 would result in a saving of 430 000 barrels per day2 equivalent to Pakistan's oil consumption. It would also increase traffic safety. Crash rates fell 22% after Seattle, Washington reduced speed limits to 40 km/h-1.
Three ban cars in inner cities. Pontevedra, Spain, and Ghent, Belgium did so. Paris is planning to do the same; Berlin is also considering it. This ban reduces noise and air pollution, and revitalizes streets as places for social interaction. Residents will be more inclined to live without cars if there are restrictions, like car-free Sundays. These measures could be implemented in advanced economies to save an additional 82 MtCO2e each year (see SI).
Four streets that are safe for cycling. Nearly 65% of car trips in Germany are under 10km. This is 20% of total car travel. It is important to expand safe bicycle lanes that are separated from traffic. During the pandemic, some cities attempted this. Bogota, for example, created 84 kms of temporary bicycle lanes by using traffic cones. This increased the city’s share of bicycle trips from 9% in 2020 up to 13% by early 2021. A study of pop-up bicycle infrastructures in 2020 in 106 European countries found that an average 12 km extension of bike lanes per city increased the number and frequency of cycling trips by between 11-48%6. As a result, urban transport emissions fell between 0.34% to 1.87%.
Social equity is a crucial consideration. Transport is the sector with the greatest inequality in greenhouse gas emissions. Bans would not have any impact on low-income households that don't own a car or fly often. A small percentage (5-9%) of high-income citizens rely on cars, but have low incomes. They can be supported by targeted subsidies, zero carbon shared-car and electric-bike schemes and climate dividends for all (see below).
Heating is responsible for 25% of the total energy consumption in buildings (see SI). In countries like Germany that are major importers, turning down thermostats by 2 degrees Celsius could help save 32 billion cubic meters of Russian gas per year (20 b.c.m.). The rest would be in Europe3, which is about 13% Russia's total gas exports. The goal is to reduce heating demand, which will eventually lead to lower energy prices and help low-income households. The OECD countries' governments should mandate a maximum room temperature of 19 degrees Celsius next winter. This would be difficult to enforce and some people may need warmer rooms because of health reasons. However, it would establish a social norm that prohibits overheating.
Habitual interventions such as visual prompts from smart electricity meters can help households reduce their energy use. They can use programming devices to help manage their energy consumption, such as washing clothes off-peak. Energy saving should be a priority over large houses and expensive cars. Utilities need to provide devices that show electricity and gas consumption and send bills that compare customer energy use with the neighbourhood averages. They should also advise customers on how to save energy. Combining these approaches could result in energy savings of up to 4% (see SI). Making renewable-electricity providers the default for households when they move in to a property is another effective measure -- 80% of households stay with this option8.
Electricity savings can immediately reduce fossil-fuel imports and emissions. Power plants that provide peak energy loads and are shut down when demand falls often use gas or coal.
Using industrial products more efficiently can reduce dependence on gas. Steel is used in more than 44% of German gas imports. One-quarter of steel construction can be reduced by changing building codes. It is much better to refurbish old buildings and reuse parts than to demolish them in order to build new ones. You can save gas and materials by distributing floor space more efficiently.
Global food crises are also on the horizon. More than a third of world's cereal exports are made by Russia and Ukraine, mostly wheat, barley, and maize. Belarus and Russia are the largest exporters of fertilizer. 120 to 200 b.c.m. is required for the production of ammonia which is used in making nitrogen-based fertilizer. Global gas production is about 3-5% annually. This is comparable to Russian gas exports into the EU. The prices of fertilizer and cereals are on the rise.
What should we do? Europe could be the only one to replace the lost Ukrainian grain. The EU could produce one-third of its fodder, or the entire world could grow wheat and other grains. Fodder is responsible for more than half the agricultural production in the United States, the EU and globally. Only 12% of calories in feed end up as human-food calories. This would help reduce deforestation in other parts the world. Emissions of methane from livestock would be reduced if there were fewer animals to raise.
Taxing greenhouse gases in the food industry could also be an option. However, it is more difficult to implement. Analysts estimate that taxing food at US$52 for every tonne CO2 emitted would reduce agricultural sector emissions by 9%, incentivizing farmers not to use as much nitrogen fertilizer.
The prices of emissions-intensive foods, such as meat, could rise by 15% to 40%. Prices for fruits and veggies would increase by less than 3 percent. Even small price increases could result in a decrease in nutrition access in certain parts of the globe. Lowering the value-added tax on plant-based foods could reduce carbon taxes' impact. Long-term, shifting from animal protein to vegan foods and cutting food waste will reduce fertilizer inputs and agricultural emissions by 40%, as compared to current national policies.
These actions could save as much as 1,700 MtCO2e or 2.9% global greenhouse gas emissions. This includes 380 MtCO2e in transport, 350-400MtCO2e in buildings, and 920MtCO2e in food (see SI). There are other options, including heat pumps, solar power, and electric cars. However, there will be difficulties.
Social equity needs to be addressed. 15% of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by one percent of its population. Yet, hundreds of millions have no access to basic services. Climate dividends, a lump-sum transfer of hundreds of dollars per year to each citizen to ease the burden of rising energy costs, would be a better way to align climate action and social equity than a patchwork system of subsidies. This dividend could be funded by carbon prices, taxes, or trading14. It could also be used to protect low-income households who are unable to shift away from fossil fuels.
The greatest obstacles to change are inertia, economic and political interests, and inertia. Over the past decades, governments and companies have spent billions of dollars on fossil-fuel infrastructure, including gas pipelines and LNG terminals, petrol stations and oil platforms, as well as diesel and petrol vehicles and power plants. They can be switched off without losing capital, investment and expertise.
The government and other agencies must signal that the fossil fuel industry is in decline. It is not necessary to build new oil, gas, and coal infrastructure. Germany, for example, will do better to save energy than install LNG terminals. Banks, pension funds and other institutions should stop investing in oil and gas companies that are still expanding. It is important to make commitments to raise carbon pricing and set dates for the phasing-out of gas and oil heating, internal-combustion engines, and diesel engines.
The tax on windfall profits from fossil-fuel companies can help to redirect revenue and finance energy and mobility transitions. Gazprom, the state-owned giant energy company, would see its revenues drop by approximately 30-60%. Tax revenues would also more than offset the surcharges that consumers have to pay. Alternately, governments could mandate that fossil fuel companies reinvest all their income in renewable energy and alternative sources.
These barriers appear to be huge. Surveys show that there is a lot of public support for demand-driven measures. Energy conservation can help create jobs and decrease energy inequity. A rapid, sharp reduction in fossil-fuel prices is possible and feasible. This will help to create a better future for everyone.