Earth Day Special: What the War in Ukraine Means for a Green Energy Transition

This year, Earth Day marks the beginning of the ninth week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A geopolitical and military crisis that quickly transformed into an energy crisis, this conflict will have far-reaching repercussions for both humanity and our climate. On this episode, Sarah Baldwin ’87 and Dan Richards talk with experts on the politics, economics, and science of fossil fuel about the relationship between war, technological change, and climate change. 

Sarah talks with Jeff Colgan, political scientist and director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Watson, about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and the resulting sanctions imposed upon  them) have altered the global fossil fuel market. They also discuss what Jeff sees as the two different ways this crisis could impact our fight against climate change: one that will leave you hopeful, while the other…less so. 

In the second half we highlight the work of Deborah Gordon, a senior fellow at Watson and an expert on both the policies and technologies that undergird the fossil fuel industry. In her book ‘No Standard Oil,’ Deborah corrects the flawed assumptions many of us have regarding the fossil fuel industry, and how these assumptions get in the way of finding a realistic way to fight the worst effects of global climate change. 

Learn more about and purchase Deborah Gordon’s book, No Standard Oil:

Managing Abundant Petroleum in a Warming World.

Learn more about and purchase Jeff Colgan’s book, Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War.

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

DAN RICHARDS: And I'm Dan Richards.

SARAH BALDWIN: This week is Earth Week, but it also marks something else--

DAN RICHARDS: The beginning of the ninth week of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

SARAH BALDWIN: And the reason we're bringing that up on this episode is because in addition to being a human and military crisis, the war in Ukraine has also quickly become an energy crisis. Western sanctions against Russian oil and gas are affecting the entire planet and will have far-reaching repercussions for both the war and our climate.

DAN RICHARDS: On this episode, we talked with two experts on the politics, economics, and science of the fossil fuel industry about how recent events might fit into the bigger picture of the global fight against climate change.

SARAH BALDWIN: I started by talking with Jeff Colgan, a political scientist and director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Watson. We looked at how this crisis has affected the energy market as well as what Jeff sees as two different ways it might alter the fight against climate change, one that will leave you hopeful and one that won't.

DAN RICHARDS: In the second half of the episode, we'll hear from an expert on the policy and chemistry of the oil and gas industry about what we get wrong when it comes to understanding fossil fuels themselves, and more importantly, how those false assumptions that many of us hold might ultimately get in the way of creating an actual green energy transition.

SARAH BALDWIN: First, though, back to the crisis in Ukraine. I started by asking Jeff what the war in Ukraine revealed about the state of the global fossil fuel economy broadly. Here's what he had to say.

JEFF COLGAN: The war in Ukraine demonstrates pretty vividly that energy dependence, and particularly fossil fuel dependence, can have some really bad geopolitical consequences. Europe is, in a very real sense, paying for both sides of the war.

SARAH BALDWIN: What do you mean by that?

JEFF COLGAN: Europe has been funding Putin's regime for the last 20 years. Europe has been paying for Russians' oil and gas and giving Putin all of this money with which he does exactly what other oil-rich dictators around the world have done, which is warp the domestic politics of his own country so that he consolidates power, buys off political opponents or represses them, throws them in jail. And that gives him a very free hand for all kinds of foreign policy misadventures.

SARAH BALDWIN: Which brings us to something you've written about a lot-- that there's this strong correlation between, A, how big a role fossil fuels play in a country's economy, and B, how conflict-prone those countries are.

JEFF COLGAN: Yes. They are 50% more likely to get into international conflicts, and they account for something like a quarter to half of all of the conflicts in the world come from this relatively small group of oil-exporting countries.

SARAH BALDWIN: So fossil fuels are bad for more than just the climate.

JEFF COLGAN: The rap sheet against oil is getting longer and longer. We know that it's part of climate change. We now know as well that it has geopolitical consequences. This is a war and peace issue. And it's associated with corruption around the world and inequality in the countries that produce it, et cetera, et cetera. So there's just a long rap sheet and multiple reasons for us to try to move away from oil in particular, but fossil fuels generally.

SARAH BALDWIN: So let's dive into this current conflict in a little more detail. How important is Russia in the global fossil fuel market?

JEFF COLGAN: So Russia is a big fossil fuel exporter. In terms of the oil market, it's one of the three biggest exporters. For natural gas, it's even more important for Europe. About 40% of Europe's natural gas came from Russian imports. That means that for Europe, Russia was irreplaceable and still is kind of irreplaceable.

SARAH BALDWIN: And what does that represent-- what did that represent, that 40%, in dollars? It's a huge amount of money.

JEFF COLGAN: I saw a figure of $850 million a day that Europe is currently spending on Russian energy exports. And so I think that would include not just oil and natural gas but also coal, although the EU has now imposed a ban on Russian coal imports and is considering a ban on oil from Russia. The United States, of course, President Biden has already banned Russian oil.

SARAH BALDWIN: And how big an effect would these sanctions have on the EU countries themselves as consumers of this energy?

JEFF COLGAN: It would be really significant for oil and even more so for natural gas. For oil, most oil is shipped on the big oceangoing tankers around the world, which means that it's a globally integrated market. And that's good from Europe's perspective because they can get most of the oil that they import from Russia from somewhere else. They can buy it from another supplier from the African or Persian Gulf.

SARAH BALDWIN: And what about natural gas?

JEFF COLGAN: So natural gas is the real big problem. And that's, in a way, Putin's ace in the hole. The concern is that if he turned off the taps on natural gas, Europe has no real way to effectively replace all of that natural gas from other suppliers.

SARAH BALDWIN: And what are the primary uses, again, of natural gas in Europe?

JEFF COLGAN: It's really three purposes. So let me back up and say in Europe, we use natural gas for electricity generation, for heating homes, and for industrial purposes.

SARAH BALDWIN: So it's not just heating homes. It's tied to productivity in the economy, to industry.

JEFF COLGAN: Yes. For electricity, Europe can find other options for generating the electricity, including renewables or coal, even-- or there are various options. But for heating the homes and industrial use, that's where natural gas is very hard to replace in the short term. And so in the winter when the demand for natural gas is highest, depending on how cold the weather is-- and that's a really big variable here-- Europe could be in that really unpleasant position of having to choose whether to shut down major industries or let their voters freeze in their homes, which is politically unviable.

And so probably, that means major businesses would be out of luck. And that has cascading consequences for industries like fertilizer production because without natural gas, they can't make fertilizer. And that's going to have consequences for agriculture as well. So really significant threat that Putin has in his back pocket.

SARAH BALDWIN: And while a number of countries in Europe depend on Russia for natural gas, there's one that's been the focus during this crisis-- Germany. There are a few reasons for that, as Jeff explained.

JEFF COLGAN: That comes in part because of some really unfortunate policy choices Germany has made in the past, which includes one in Twenty-Eleven. They made the momentous decision to shut down their nuclear industry completely after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Understandable concerns around nuclear, but nuclear has an impeccable safety record in Western Europe. It's carbon-free. And this decision led to increased dependence on Russian natural gas.

And then a second major decision was, of course, the decision to build Nord Stream 2 that pipes natural gas from Russia directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea so that it doesn't go through potentially troublesome transit countries like Ukraine, which is where, traditionally, much of the natural gas from Russia has flown into Europe. And Nord Stream 2 was never operational because just as the war broke out, Germany said, hold on. We're not going to do that. But Nord Stream 1, the original pipeline from natural gas, continues to operate even today. And so Germany's dependence on Russian fossil fuels for their energy is a continuing reality.


SARAH BALDWIN: Which brings us back to why we're talking about Ukraine for an episode on Earth Week. Well, before this war, Europe was at the forefront of the global push to transition to green energy. I asked Jeff how this crisis might affect that transition. He had good news and bad news. Let's do the bad news first.

So this crisis--

JEFF COLGAN: It's creating energy price volatility, real spikes in the price of energy. And when that happens, it's common for voters to get angry with their politicians. In fact, it's almost like an iron law of politics that when energy prices go up, voters get really unhappy. And so that can really limit the ambition that politicians have to push for the clean energy transition we need.

They don't want to be seen as responsible for your gasoline prices going up, your electricity prices going up, et cetera. And so energy prices become the rate-determining step at which climate politics can advance. We just can't go faster on climate change than energy politics will allow.

SARAH BALDWIN: The good news? Maybe in light of this crisis, some of the energy politics will change too.

JEFF COLGAN: I do think it will have some silver linings, one of which is that Russia's long-term fossil fuel industry is going to hurt. The sanctions that are being placed right now, what they're doing is making the investment climate for Russia's fossil fuel sector just untouchable. No Western business wants to put their money into that right now. And so that's good from a climate perspective that it is shrinking one of the major producers of fossil fuel right now.

The trick is, of course, to shrink that production and not see it grow elsewhere to compensate, but instead, to redirect our energy consumption towards clean sources like hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear as well. And there's a real question here about how fast Europe can push on that. But to the extent that they are doing a demonstration case of how to decarbonize a major economy, that is helpful for the whole rest of the world as well.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, Jeff, as always, it's been so enlightening having you here to talk with us. Thank you so much.

JEFF COLGAN: Thank you, Sarah. It's always a pleasure.


SARAH BALDWIN: So according to Jeff, this crisis could affect the green energy transition in positive or negative ways. Ultimately, it's still up to us to push for policies that fight off the worst effects of climate change. Our next guest says that achieving that goal might require something else too-- a better understanding of fossil fuels themselves. And with that, I'll hand it over to our producer, Dan Richards.

DAN RICHARDS: Deborah Gordon started her career in the energy industry as a chemical engineer at Chevron. Since leaving the company in the late '80s, she's used her expertise to research and communicate to a wider audience how exactly the use of fossil fuels affects our climate. And in her new book, No Standard Oil, Deborah makes the case that many of us, policymakers and regular people alike, hold false assumptions about the oil and gas industry. And these assumptions, they get in the way of finding realistic solutions to avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

So let's just jump into these assumptions that Deborah thinks many of us have about the fossil fuel, or more accurately, hydrocarbon industry. The first one--

DEBORAH GORDON: The first one is that oil and gas will run out. The truth is oil and gas are abundant. They're abundant on our Earth, and they're abundant on asteroids and comets and on other planets. These hydrocarbons are everywhere in the universe. And they're like the building blocks of everything. And so we have to treat this, really, as if this isn't just about using less of something that's going away anyway.

DAN RICHARDS: In other words, this problem of burning hydrocarbons and warming the planet, it's never going to get solved on its own by us just simply running out of them. The next assumption--

DEBORAH GORDON: --is that oil and gas are standard commodities. They're all the same.

DAN RICHARDS: They are not standard at all. In their natural state, they can range in consistency and weight and texture from, say--

DEBORAH GORDON: --peanut butter to nail polish remover. Peanut butter and nail Polish remover are nothing like each other physically, chemically.

DAN RICHARDS: Correcting this assumption is important. But before we get to why, maybe we can take a step back and get a little primer on something I, at least, have never really fully understood. So oil and gas, how are they related, exactly? Thankfully, Deborah didn't make me feel too dumb for asking that question.

DEBORAH GORDON: No, it's a fantastic question because I don't think people realize it. Oil and gas come out of the ground together. And they come out of the ground together. They have to then get processed together to separate them, and then they start to separate. Then the gas goes into a gas supply chain, and the oil goes to a refinery in a whole different chain.

But because they end up in different places in the economy-- a lot of gas goes into your utility to generate electricity. Oil goes into your gas tank, and it goes into your plane ride and onto the asphalt and your road and the rubber in your tires of your bicycle. So they end up being very different when the consumer sees them, but they are very related, almost like twins.

DAN RICHARDS: OK. With that out of the way, let's get back to this whole peanut butter versus nail polish remover thing. So getting all of these different kinds of raw materials refined into these uniform products--

DEBORAH GORDON: --like gasoline or diesel or jet fuel or plastic--

DAN RICHARDS: --it can require a lot of energy. And where does all that energy come from, you ask?

DEBORAH GORDON: A lot of oil and gas is used by the oil and gas industry to actually make oil and gas. So it's a non-virtuous cycle, I will say.

DAN RICHARDS: Different types of these raw hydrocarbons can require different amounts of energy to refine, and those differences can be large. In terms of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from different types of refinement--

DEBORAH GORDON: When you talk about the processing and the refining and the transport, the supply chain differences between the same volume of oil or the same volume of two different gases can be a factor of 10x. It's huge how different these things are in terms of their emissions impact. So there could be so many emissions that come out of any given barrel of oil or gas before I, the consumer, even take on that responsibility of burning it or using it in the first place.

DAN RICHARDS: What we're talking about is what people call embedded energy or the carbon footprint of a product. So think of it. Let's say you buy a car that's twice as efficient as your old car. But at the same time, your local gas station starts getting gasoline that ultimately came from a different source, one that required four times the amount of energy to refine and transport. Well, your new efficient car, then, isn't really doing as much as you might have thought, which brings us to another false assumption--

DEBORAH GORDON: --that the solution rests on your and my shoulders, on consumers' shoulders, when in reality, there's not anything we alone can do to reduce the emissions impact of this industry.

DAN RICHARDS: Now, Deborah doesn't think we shouldn't change our personal habits. But changing our habits alone, the fossil fuels that we burn in our daily lives, isn't going to be enough to avoid the worst effects of global warming. And that's partially because of all the embedded carbon in the fossil fuel products we use, but it's also because hydrocarbons are just so deeply intertwined into our daily lives.

DEBORAH GORDON: I wish everyone would just keep a log to educate themselves of how much oil and gas they use every day in part of a product, like washing your hair, taking your medicine, wearing your pajamas, getting on your bicycle with its tires, all of this, the plastic in your everything.


DAN RICHARDS: So let's take stock. Oil and gas-- we've got lots of it on this planet and off of this planet. And ultimately, we are not going to run out. We use it in everything, including many things we don't even think of. And we often have to burn lots of it just to create it. When you start peeling back these assumptions, it becomes clear that what some environmentalists dream of-- simply turning off the tap on hydrocarbons-- is just not going to happen at the speed we need it to, which is why, as Deborah explains--

DEBORAH GORDON: The oil industry has never been all that threatened by the public or campaigners saying get off oil because they know it's not very realistic to do anytime soon.

DAN RICHARDS: And yet Deborah does not think we are doomed.

DEBORAH GORDON: I mean, you're talking to an eternal optimist.

DAN RICHARDS: So what does Deborah propose we do? Well, a few things.

DEBORAH GORDON: The very, very basic one is to just have more transparency.

DAN RICHARDS: Given how different different kinds of hydrocarbons are-- again, peanut butter versus nail polish-- there's a ton of greenhouse gas emissions that we could save by simply extracting and refining the least energy-intensive types of hydrocarbons. But to do that, we first need to know about all the different kinds and where they are. But that is information that, at the moment as a society, we don't really have access to.

DEBORAH GORDON: There needs to be more operational basic information for policymakers and the public and for the civil society groups and also for investors. It exists within the industry, but it's not for sale. And it's not really there for the public to see. And so we can't make really good, smart decisions, and our policymakers can't either. And that lack of transparency benefits the industry. It doesn't benefit everyone else.

DAN RICHARDS: Deborah says that from there, we need to continue investing in renewable energy and other technologies that can wean us off of these fuels. But we need to do it methodically. Deborah doesn't think we can or even should, quote, "turn off the tap."

DEBORAH GORDON: The idea of-- if you think of a surgeon, the idea of just chopping something off is just never how you would survive. And I think it's the same in the oil and gas sector. It's in every part of what we do. It's so much part of everything that when you have something-- and this is true of the world's biggest problems anyway. But when you have something that's so integrated into the very fabric of what we do, the only option is surgical. The only option is to really carefully think about how you extricate something or actually make it less harmful because you can't easily extricate it.


DAN RICHARDS: This idea is not as exciting sounding as a zero-carbon future powered entirely by renewable energy like wind and solar. But if recent history is our guide, it might be our only option.

DEBORAH GORDON: I don't see the new year coming around, and it's January 1, and someone says, this year, I'm going to lose weight.

DAN RICHARDS: The more realistic option, for better or worse, is what Deborah calls 2% solutions.

DEBORAH GORDON: Little things that add up to more than the sum of their parts that the industry, policymakers, and the public can do. And if we were smart enough to really integrate those, they can add up to even much more than the sum of their parts.

DAN RICHARDS: That non-virtuous cycle of fuels being used to extract fossil fuels, that could change into a different cycle where we need fewer fossil fuels for fewer things, so we produce less fossil fuels, and the fossil fuels we produce are the most efficient kind, thereby further reducing the need for fossil fuels. You see what I'm getting at here-- virtuous cycle, which could bring us to what Deborah sees as our realistically best-case scenario.

DEBORAH GORDON: Only using oil and gas in the least impactful way, what remains in the economy. Instead of using 100 million barrels a day in the global economy, maybe we're down to 20 million barrels a day, which is a huge 80% reduction, but using it only for the things that there's no other cleaner substitute for.

DAN RICHARDS: You may notice, though, that even in this virtuous circle, we'd still be producing millions of barrels of oil a day. And those barrels, once burned, would still release greenhouse gases. Now, Deborah doesn't think we can afford to keep adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere indefinitely, which means we'll need other solutions, things like carbon capture technology and other feats of what people call geoengineering, most of which doesn't exist yet at any scale. And even if it did, its effects would be not fully known. So does Deborah think those sort of things are worth the potential risk?

DEBORAH GORDON: Yeah, I do, and so does the International Energy Agency. Every report that's put out that has this climate align says that there have to be net negative emissions as well, which means getting emissions, carbon CO2 out of the atmosphere. It's going to be scrubbing CO2 from the air and combining it with the hydrogen. So we still have hydrocarbons in our economy. They're just not made in a 20th-century way.

We're so used to digging things out and burning them, but the atmosphere is telling us we can't do it that way anymore. It doesn't mean we can't have hydrocarbon. We're going to probably have to combine CO2 from direct air capture and combine that with green hydrogen from splitting up water and ending up recombining hydrocarbons, which is essentially oil and gas, but not from geology, not from pools in the ground. It's going to be from waste that we pull this all together. And we make things in a much more circular way out of what we have.

DAN RICHARDS: This is the kind of stuff that really concerns some environmentalists-- the idea of relying on technology to keep letting us use hydrocarbons forever. Can't we just stop using them and not risk all the consequences of some new, untested technology on top of the old? Maybe. But the more times we hit the proverbial new year only to see that we failed once again at our resolution of kicking the fossil fuel habit, the more Deborah thinks people will become open to exploring these kinds of ideas.

DEBORAH GORDON: I think that what they call climate engineering or geoengineering are going to be a part of our future. We're going to be living with this type of an engineering solution. But listen, the whole modern economy of combustion engines-- we're already geoengineering. So it's not as if we're taking a pristine environment, and we're doing something to it. We're taking a dangerously dirty environment, and we're trying to use engineering solutions to reverse some of the harm.

It's almost like a bathtub. So what we're using every year, every day, is like the spigot running, but the bathtub is already running over. So not only do we have to turn down the spigot, we have to empty the bathtub faster.

DAN RICHARDS: Which can seem like a bigger challenge than a collection of 2% solutions could possibly solve. But Deborah disagrees. She thinks that if we can see this problem a little more clearly in all its granular detail, that we could find a lot of small solutions within our grasp and that these solutions could add up in ways that we can't even predict.

DEBORAH GORDON: So the idea of getting off of oil and gas means we have to untangle all of that web really smartly. And I think we're capable of it. We the destination. What's the pathway?


SARAH BALDWIN: Thanks for tuning in to this special Earth Day episode from Trending Globally.

DAN RICHARDS: And thanks to Jeff and Deborah for talking with us. You can find links to more of their work in the show notes.

SARAH BALDWIN: And if you like the show, please help spread the word. Tell a friend and leave us a rating and review on whatever podcast app you use.

DAN RICHARDS: Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield and additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Kate Dario.

SARAH BALDWIN: We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.



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Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally