OPINION: Ukraine invasion shows urgency of renewables shift for Global South

Thursday, 17 March 2022 10:19 GMT

Power-generating wind turbines are seen at the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) station in Ngong hills, about 22 km (14 miles) southwest of Kenya's capital Nairobi, September 8, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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The global gas crunch offers a chance to move to a more self-reliant energy future

Justin Locke, based in Washington, oversees work on the Global South for RMI, an energy systems transformation non-profit. Francis Elisha leads RMI’s Africa program from Paris and Addis Ababa.

Just a few days into the Ukraine conflict, Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Na-tions, spoke to the world of the need to break with a colonial past to build a better future.

On behalf of one of the continent’s most populous countries, Kimani reminded Africans of the pitfalls of looking backwards.

“We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires,” he said, “in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination.”

Even as colonial domination fades, other forms persist, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers a grim reminder of the perils of domination by energy dependency.

European nations reliant on Russian oil and gas were slow to respond to the rising threat. And now we are witnessing the unthinkable: a ground invasion of a sovereign nation within Europe's borders, its bloody toll documented in real time via social media, sending ripple effects across Europe and the world.

Beyond the devastating impact on human lives, the unprecedented situation has also shaken the energy sector and rattled the global economy. The war has sparked a public reckoning with the security risks posed by fossil fuel dependency and presents a rare opportunity to reconsider alternatives.

The moment should accelerate the energy transition not just in Europe and the Global North, but across the Global South too.

In recent years, the impact of climate change has animated much of the urgency driving the switch to clean energy, particularly for developing countries across the Global South where the effects are felt most acutely.

However, the economic and security risks of fossil fuel dependency have informed decades of thinking on renewables.

Consider that in 1976 — in the shadow of the 1973 oil crisis, the first war-induced global energy supply shock — Amory Lovins, co-founder of RMI, wrote "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?"

In this landmark analysis published in Foreign Affairs, Lovins advocated a soft energy pathway for global security, centered on efficiency and renewables, rather than a hard path, with ongoing expansion of fossil fuel extraction, trade, and pollution.

Lovins’s article argued that a decentralized energy system powered by renewable electricity would not only be a lower-cost, more equitable pathway to meet the world’s growing energy needs but would also cut the risk of war and supply shocks by localizing production of energy.

Though penned nearly a half century ago, Lovins’s insights into the risks of energy security remain prescient. Decades of gradually growing national and corporate reliance on Russian fossil energy set the stage for Moscow’s miscalculation that its armies could roll through Ukraine un-obstructed.

Indeed, in the weeks building up to the invasion, countries including Germany and France took a back seat in condemning rising Russian aggression, in large part due to their dependence on Russian gas and oil. Worldwide, crude oil prices have tested $130 per barrel in recent days, stoking worries of global inflation and economic disruption.

As the world’s second largest producer of gas and third largest of oil, Russia is adept at manipulating its energy leverage.

Its president, Vladimir Putin, is only the most recent example of bad actors who have weaponized fossil fuels for political gain. His tactics offer a sobering reminder of the risks of continued dependence on fossil fuels and the need for an immediate transition to low-cost, reliable clean energy solutions.

Many clean energy initiatives are already under way in countries across the Global South.

In Nigeria, mini-grids supplied by renewable sources such as wind and solar are taking shape. RMI has also partnered with the government of the Bahamas and a local electric utility to de-velop fourteen micro-grids that promise to keep the lights on during category 5 hurricanes. These systems pay for themselves through fuel savings in five to six years.

Each nation, particularly in the Global South, has a sovereign right to choose its own path to economic development, and any advocation for clean energy portfolios should be driven by national decision makers.

That said, it is becoming increasingly clear that efforts to develop new infrastructure for gas should be abandoned. Doing so not only speeds a transition to renewable energy, but also buttresses energy security by preventing dependence on a few fossil fuel exporters.

The spectacle of war can easily overwhelm with feelings of fear, spiraling toward powerless-ness. Yet the courage of the Ukrainian people reminds us that, in the face of discouraging odds, action sparks hope.

Our hope is to not only achieve a clean-energy future for all, but to prevent fossil fuels from ever again being used as a weapon of war by a few oil- and gas-rich states.

As highlighted by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, fossil fuels are a “dead end for our planet, for humanity, and yes, for economies.”

Prioritizing a transition to locally sourced green energy across the Global South will secure a path to both energy security and a greener, more sustainable future.