The news from Ukraine these days just seems to get worse and worse for the country. Military planes are being shot from the sky by rebels, the eastern half of the country is still trying to secede (despite Russia not being quite so vocally supportive anymore), and the Crimean region seems to have been irreversibly lost to Putin at this point. Now, to top it all off, the Russian energy company Gazprom has turned off Ukraine’s gas supply, claiming that the country has not yet paid what it owes. The only vaguely positive spin on this is that at least it didn’t happen in the middle of the winter.
Now of course this decision by Gazprom is political rather than financial. There has just been a new Ukrainian president elected, in an election that Russia essentially considers void because it doesn’t accept the recent revolution that kicked Yanukovych out of the country. And Russia has a desire to keep flexing its newfound muscle on the international stage, showing the world that it is once again a power that should not be messed with. After all, if countries were cut off for not immediately paying their debts, almost nowhere in the world would have any energy right now.
And that’s part of the problem. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, our global energy system is no longer working well. It’s based around widespread use of fossil fuels that are increasingly scarce and increasingly controlled by only a few countries around the world. If access to those fuels dries up, countries suddenly find themselves in a whole lot of trouble, often unable to provide even basic services to their people.
It is this energy system that is allowing Russia to bully Ukraine right now. It is also this energy system that led to the US decision to invade Iraq, in an attempt to rewrite the oil-rich Middle East region in their own image, and to gain control of enough fuel supplies to keep their unsustainable economy running for a long time. It is this energy system that allows the OPEC cartel to control prices for ordinary consumers around the world. And it is this energy system that causes us to continually dig for more and more fossil fuels in less and less conventional places – under the Arctic, in the tar sands, in Alaska, and so on.
Almost all countries in the world are far too dependent on oil and gas for their energy needs, and this leaves them far too dependent on one or two key suppliers. This fact is starkly illustrated by the fact that the Gazprom shutdown of Ukraine’s energy supply is worrying the EU, who are concerned that even their superpower bloc may not get access to enough fuel for this year unless the flow from Russia gets turned back on promptly. Instead of self-sufficiency and sustainability, which are the goals that all countries should be striving after, we have dependence on dirty fuels.
Many people make a lot of money from this system; the people who suffer the most from it are those who are already poor. They pay high prices at the gas pumps, or to heat their homes in the west. And in the developing world they suffer from the early effects of climate change, killing their crops, flooding their villages, destroying their livelihoods.
What the Ukraine incident shows is the need for greater self-sufficiency in energy sources for all countries, and the need to focus on alternative energy technologies. Rather than being reliant on Russian gas, Ukraine – and the rest of us – should be focusing on cleaner, greener, renewable technologies that are much more easily accessible throughout the world. In designing a new world energy system over the next few decades, these need to be priorities for the international community.
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