Food and fuel prices are soaring globally, and the Russian oil and gas supply has been squeezed since the invasion of Ukraine. In response, European governments are paving the way to massive investments in fossil fuels from non-Russian sources that imperil efforts to tackle climate change.
Policies are being made to suit fossil fuel companies, who see Russia’s war in Ukraine as an opportunity to expand production elsewhere. Governments are missing opportunities to cut oil and gas use by managing demand — by insulating homes and shifting from car-based urban transport systems, for example — and speeding the shift to electricity generation from solar and wind power.
Governmental failures in the face of the climate crisis, exemplified by scorching summer temperatures and drought, are matched by inadequate responses to economic crises. Inflation and recession are combining to threaten hundreds of millions of people’s livelihoods. Resistance to these attacks is growing. Here in the U.K., a wave of strikes seems likely to become the biggest in decades.
Activists are seeking to unite these protests over living standards with actions aimed at cutting fossil fuel use and limiting global warming. Uniting the fight for social justice and climate justice is necessary, and possible, as never before.
Responses to High Fuel Prices
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February accelerated already galloping increases in fuel prices. Since the start of 2021, gas prices in Europe have risen more than eight-fold. Oil rose from around $50/barrel, to $120/barrel in March; it has stayed above $90/barrel since.
European governments’ “emergency” response measures, aimed at sourcing non-Russian supplies, included approving fossil fuel production projects that will not come on stream for years.
The U.K. government led the way in April, with its Energy Security Strategy, which commits to license new gas projects — in direct opposition to the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the United Nations Environment Programme’s calls to cease new gas and oil exploration and extraction immediately. The strategy included almost nothing to boost insulation of U.K. homes, which energy researchers see as the most effective way to cut gas use.
The RePowerEU plan put together by the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, committed some resources to cutting fossil fuel use by retrofitting homes, reforming urban transport and accelerating renewables development. But not enough.
It also approved billions of dollars in new gas infrastructure — “a slower, costlier and more environmentally damaging answer to the bloc’s energy security needs” than renewables and retrofitting, a Global Energy Monitor report showed.
Brussels also backs a scheme to import “green” hydrogen, produced from renewables, from north Africa, and, in the future, Ukraine. Opponents say it is “neocolonial greenwash,” and that new renewables capacity should instead be geared to those countries’ own energy needs.
Most dangerous of all, though, are plans backed by European governments to boost gas production in Africa, with exports to Europe substituting for Russian gas supplies.
In May, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed a deal with Senegal President Macky Sall to explore for gas that would be liquefied and sent by ship to Europe. In June, African Union leaders discussed making a joint call to the COP27 international climate talks in Egypt in November, for expansion of oil and gas output across the continent.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Italy’s energy group Eni has signed new deals with Algeria, Egypt and the Republic of Congo, geared to exporting more gas to Europe; TotalEnergies of France is considering restarting a stalled $20 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Mozambique; and Equinor of Norway has joined Shell to sign an agreement with Tanzania on building a liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminal there.
Civil Society Resists
African civil society has reacted angrily to the oil and gas investment plans. A blueprint presented to African Union leaders failed to explain “why current, largely centralised, largely fossil fuel-dependent, largely export-oriented energy systems have failed to deliver energy access to hundreds of millions of ordinary Africans,” a memo from NGOs stated. The focus for each region should be on using each continent’s own “massive renewable energy potential” to end energy poverty domestically, they demanded.
Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, said that locking Africa into “a fossil-fuel-based future” would be “a shameful betrayal.” Lorraine Chiponda of Africa Coal Network said the oil and gas investment plans are “not directed by Africa’s needs, but by the energy crisis in Europe.” The proposals were also rejected by climate diplomats, including those representing the Egyptian presidency of COP27.
The focus on gas export can only increase the burden borne by Africa’s poorest people, who have little or no access to electricity or other modern forms of energy. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people without electricity access rose by about 4 percent between 2019 and 2021, to 590 million (43 percent of the population), due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns and energy prices, effectively reversing gains made in 2014-18. The number of Africans lacking access to clean cooking fuels also rose, to more than 970 million, almost three-quarters of the continent’s population. For cooking, most of them rely on gathered wood, and agricultural and animal wastes.
Russian aggression in Ukraine has made the situation worse. Galloping food and fuel prices have pushed another 71 million people in developing countries into poverty since March, the UN Development Programme reported in July.
Energy specialists argue that developing Africa’s gigantic solar and wind potential is the means to address energy poverty. Resources poured into LNG export terminals undermine this potential.
The Shadow Over COP27
The approach by the biggest European governments — limited action on energy conservation and renewables, plus billions for new gas projects, hydrogen and carbon capture — bears comparison with those of China and the U.S., the largest and second-largest greenhouse gas emitters respectively.
China, while investing heavily in renewables, continues to increase coal production and consumption. Its emissions trajectory is compatible with 3 degrees Celsius (3°C) of global heating, as opposed to the science-based target of 1.5°C, Climate Action Tracker research shows.
In the U.S., Democratic politicians this month congratulated themselves on passing the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $369 billion for climate measures such as support for electric vehicle purchases, carbon capture and renewables — but, as campaigners warned, no restrictions on fossil fuel development.
The package could take U.S. emissions to 60 percent of their 2005 level, analysts estimated — 10-12 percent above the target set by President Joe Biden just last year. Climate Action Tracker deems that target itself “insufficient,” and compatible with 2.4°C of warming. Moreover, the U.S. and other rich nations have still failed to cough up $100 billion of climate finance promised to vulnerable nations by 2020.
It all adds up to the prospect of COP27, like other COPs before it, obstructing and undermining efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Society as a whole needs to find solutions outside the talks and the greenwash that surrounds them.
Social Justice and Climate Justice
In Europe and North America alike, rising fuel prices threaten millions of families with disaster: They will be unable to pay for heating and electricity this winter. In the U.K., decades of neoliberal market reforms have removed all restraints from the energy companies, who force the full burden of wholesale price rises onto households. The market is set up so that even electricity produced from low-cost renewables is sold at prices linked to gas.
By January 2023, rising energy bills are expected to triple to more than £5000 per year for average households, and will push two-thirds of U.K. families into fuel poverty. In response, more than 100,000 people have signed a pledge, launched by the Don’t Pay campaign, to refuse to pay their energy bills.
The challenge before us is to unite this tide of anger at profiteering energy companies with the fight to prevent dangerous global heating.
In 2018, during the Yellow Vests movement in France, triggered by fuel levies that the government called “green,” the phrase “the elites talk about the end of the world, but we worry about the end of the month” was coined.
Less well-known was the slogan that responded to it — “end of the world, end of the month, same fight!” — which sought to unite social protest with action on climate change. This year, demands such as “insulate Britain” — to retrofit homes, to cut both energy use and bills — have reached towards such unity. More needs to be done.
The same companies and governments that seek to ramp up fossil fuel production in a climate emergency also seek neo-colonial subjugation of Africa and assault households’ living standards in the Global North and Global South alike.
Struggles for social justice and climate justice must be united to transform society and end their domination.