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The Sun Will Set Us Free

Yevgenia Belorusets, from the series “Modern Animal”, 2020, Courtesy of the Naked Room

BEYOND THE WAR/
essay

The Sun Will Set Us Free

Christian Stöcker on Energy Independence.

Yevgenia Belorusets (Kyiv, 1980) works as an artist and as editor of "Prostory", a journal for literature, art, and politics. Her multidisciplinary approach to prose and photographs is mirrored in the narratives alluded to in the series “Modern Animal”, a black and white portraiture of structures, language cliches, and poetics of alienation of species. Belorusets focuses on conversations with those who can’t be heard or seen.




Wars, like other great crises, often have a similar effect on those not directly affected by them: they seem to support whatever positions people have held before, to increase convictions that predate the current escalation. Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war of aggression against the people of Ukraine is no exception.

Western military hawks see their conviction reinforced that the West‘s, especially Europe’s, reliance on diplomacy and trade as a means of sustaining peace has been debunked and proven naive. Fans of nuclear power see evidence for their long-held conviction that Germany’s decision to phase out its nuclear power plants was a mistake. And everybody who has correctly been warning that Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns, election meddling and influence operations in western countries were only a precursor to more nefarious actions has been proven right.

The most glaring of takeaways from Putin’s aggression and the originally timid, and still pained response of western nations, most of all Germany’s, is a different and very simple one, however: the fact that most European countries depend on buying gas and oil from a country that they are at the same time trying to punish with severe economic sanctions is more than embarrassing. It’s disastrous. And it could have been avoided.

The fact that dependency on fossil fuels from autocratic regimes is a geopolitical problem cannot possibly have escaped the notice of western politicians. During both Iraq wars, protesters in Germany and elsewhere marched through the streets shouting „no blood for oil!“ To no avail, of course. Many of the wars fought over the last few decades arguably had at least a component of being about fossil fuel supply. And the suppliers of oil and gas have not, as some might have hoped, used their earnings to modernize and democratize their countries. To the contrary: some, like Russia, have clearly moved into the opposite direction.

Germany's dependency is so massive that even the Greens are hesitating to stop Russian fossil fuel imports before Putin himself decides to.

The global economy is, to this day, hooked on commodities provided by autocrats, by countries who wage wars against their neighbors and suppress any opposition or dissent within their own borders. The largest exporters of oil in the world are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait and Iraq – none of which qualify as models for freedom, equal rights and democracy. For the rest of the world to still be so massively dependent on countries like these is a collective political failure of massive proportions.

The situation is slightly different when it comes to natural gas – the only autocracies amongst the top exporting countries are Qatar and Russia. The top five also include the United States, Norway and Australia. But Russia’s exports dwarf all others – and the European Union has so far been getting almost half of its total supply of natural gas from Russia.

Yevgenia Belorusets, from the series “Modern Animal”, 2020, courtesy of the Naked Room

The dependency is so massive that even the Green German minister for Energy and the Economy, Robert Habeck, is hesitating to stop Russian fossil fuel imports before Putin himself decides to. Habeck insists that it can be done – but at the same time that he would rather not risk it.

All of this is, not least, a colossal victory for the industries that have for decades, using lies, propaganda, corruption and lobbying, made sure that industrialized nations stayed hooked on fossil fuels, led by US and also European oil producers. The geopolitical implications of being dependent on autocrats and dictators were roundly ignored, as well as the dire need to limit the heating of earth‘s atmosphere caused by rapidly and relentlessly releasing CO₂ that has been stored underground for millions of years. Being dependent on burning stuff is doubly catastrophic.

The global fossil fuel lobbies and associated industries – carmakers come to mind, as well as the global shipping and aerospace industry – have so far managed to keep the world from realizing the obvious: a world without fossil fuels is as possible as it is desirable. For climate as well as for geopolitical reasons.

The EU have yet to embrace the obvious solution to their current problem: creating, distributing and storing renewable energy.

Germany is a glaring example of what went wrong: the installed capacity of electricity generated by wind turbines for example grew at an exponential rate between 2010 and 2014. Then growth dipped slightly, to recover briefly in 2017 with a record of over 5,000 additional Megawatts of wind energy capacity installed that year. Then, growth plummeted. Recall that Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

Something very similar happened with solar energy: photovoitaic capacity in Germany grew exponentially between 2003 and 2012 – then growth slowed to a crawl. By then, the German push towards a much greater share of energy supply provided from renewable sources had permanently altered the world market: globally, the price of a kilowatt hour of solar electricity has been dropping exponentially for many years now, while production of photovoltaic cells largely shifted from Germany to China. In many parts of the world - including in Germany, as Bloomberg’s renewable energy specialists concluded in a 2021 study - large scale solar is now the cheapest way by far to generate electricity.

But the ruling coalition of Free Democrats (FDP) and Angela Merkel’s CDU did not capitalize on that success, it effectively brought it to a halt by stopping subsidy programs and changing other regulations. Additional harm was done to the growth of wind energy by creating prohibitive rules for erecting new turbines, catering to the wishes of local residents bothered by their view, by animal protection activists prioritizing local birds over dealing with a looming global catastrophe. Meanwhile, even the European Central Bank’s economists reached the conclusion that it would be cheaper to quickly do something about climate change than to dawdle – even without a war in the middle of the European continent.

Yevgenia Belorusets, from the series “Modern Animal”, 2020, courtesy of the Naked Room

Regardless, Germany’s minister for Energy and the Economy at the time, Peter Altmaier (CDU), publicly stated that the European Union’s „Green New Deal“ would require additional gas imports from Russia as late as 2020. For the same reason, the recently elected chancellor, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD), seemed unwilling to even debate finally canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project linking Russia with western Europe. It took military action in Ukraine to finally correct that position. The West’s political establishment still didn‘t seem capable of accepting the obvious.

Now, at least the notion that energy independence is a geopolitical necessity is finally beginning to sink in, even in Europe. The leader of Germany’s Free Democrats and it’s new finance minister, Christian Lindner, called renewables „freedom energy“ in Parliament, speaking a few days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This comes as a late, but highly necessary realization from the head of the party that was instrumental in sabotaging the growth of those „freedom energies“ for a long time.

While the US has pursued a strategy of at least potential energy independence for many decades, albeit one based mainly on non-sustainable oil, gas and coal, the countries of the European Union have yet to embrace the obvious solution to their current problem: finally go all-in on creating, distributing and storing renewable energy, solar heat, geothermal energy, electrifying traffic, installing heat pumps instead of gas furnaces in buildings - and finally making use of all available ways to prevent the still incredibly wasteful way we use energy in the first place.

An international group of researchers recently demonstrated in Nature how much could be gained by finally implementing some of these so-called demand-side solutions, ranging from food production and consumption to buildings, industry and mobility: „Demand-side reduction strategies hence provide the essential breathing space needed for meeting climate targets in the short and medium term. We also show that these are consistent with improved well-being,“ the researchers wrote. Today, this needs to be supplemented with another, extremely important benefit: reducing energy consumption across sectors is not just good for the climate and for human health – it is also a very good security policy.

Ending our dependence on the exports of autocratic regimes and particularly on Vladimir Putin’s unabashedly aggressive Russia needs to become the Western world‘s geopolitical guiding star for the coming years. The wind and the sun will set us free.

Christian Stöcker is a professor for digital communication in Hamburg, columnist for Spiegel Online, and a media fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

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