Facing up to global energy crisis

King’s College London

The war in Ukraine has laid bare how energy resources are intertwined with political power and international security, plus how reliant we still are on fossil fuels to power our daily lives. This new podcast episode explores how we got to this point and what the future holds.

pipelines heading into the distance

In the latest episode in the WORLD: we got this podcast series, experts from our Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy look at global energy interdependence and what recent events reveal about how energy affects the social, political and economic order in Russia and the rest of the world.

The episode also looks at what China is doing to move away from its past reliance on coal to power its economic growth. And our experts explore what are the obstacles for many countries to transition away from fossil fuels onto renewable energy sources.

The revenue from the export of oil and gas that is usually referred to as ‘rent’ is a key source of income for Russia’s federal budget – making up more than 30 per cent of it last year.

Kalina Damianova, a PhD candidate at King’s Russia Institute and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Political Economy and Department of European and International Studies, says it has much wider implications too.

The rent has become a binding element in the overall social, political, and economic order in Russia. It alleviates some of the economic burden away from domestic consumers, it allows the political regime to fund social, political and economic projects and even benefits to some extent elite enrichment through these indirect sources of resource rent redistribution. So, in many aspects, energy resources in Russia are linked with power.– Kalina Damianova

She says that as things are still dynamic and changing, we can only speculate on the full implications of the war in Ukraine for Russia’s role as an energy superpower. However, it is clear many countries will be reluctant to trust Russia in the future and its credibility as a reliable supplier is damaged.

One country that is continuing to take Russian oil and gas is China.

Isabel Hilton, a visiting professor at the Lau China Institute, says Beijing is unlikely to want to become too dependent on Russian energy. So, although we might see more Russian oil and gas going to China, it is unlikely to replace the European market.

She outlines how China powered much of its initial economic growth using its vast coal reserves, but it is moving away from that now and has committed to is reaching carbon neutrality by 2060 and for its emissions to peak by 2030 or earlier.

She says progress is slow and if China is to switch to more renewable energy sources, it will mean huge and complex changes to the energy grid and the market, especially as current contracts work against such a change.

However, she says China has initiatives to improve energy efficiency, has invested heavily in low carbon technologies, including electric vehicles, and lowered the cost of renewable technology for everyone. It has also said it will no longer build coal-fired power stations in other countries as part of its ‘Belt and Road’ strategy plus said it will support the development of renewable energy in host countries.

Isabel says we need more networks of cooperation and for businesses to move faster if we want to meet our energy needs at the same time as tackle the climate crisis.

We have the technology, we have the capability, but it demands political will to execute this change in our energy systems, and frankly I don’t see the kind of leadership we need at the political level right now. So, I’m optimistic that it can be done. I’m optimistic actually about global public opinion… I’m optimistic that we can do it. I am just not so optimistic about whether we will do it.– Isabel Hilton

Dr Thomas Fröhlich, of our Department of War Studies, carries out work focusing on the geopolitical implications of the global energy transition.

In the episode he explores various alternative to fossil fuels including economic degrowth, electrification, the bioeconomy (such as using ethanol as a fuel source which Brazil has tried) and hydrogen. In all cases, he says it is very difficult to get away from using fossil fuels to create energy because of the existing structures and processes we have in place designed around using gas and oil.

His outlines how economic growth could be combined with transitioning to alternative and sustainable energy sources. He also highlights things individuals can do and why it is vital that the financial industry and politicians move away from investing in or subsidising the fossil fuel industry. Looking to the future he does feel optimistic.

We already have seen a large shift in public opinion in favour of renewable energies. ..and this trend will only accelerate. So, while the pace at which we’re going is not fast enough at this point, the path that we’re following is the right one, and I am confident that within the next few years we will see things accelerate to the level needed.– Dr Thomas Fröhlich

To find out more about Isabel Hilton and her work, visit the China Dialogue website

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