Monday 11 April 2022

Europe’s Deadly Ethical Dilemma: Energy or Ethics?

A political cartoon depicting Putin's relentless desire to crush democracy by any means, including using Russia's extensive oil profits to do so. Via

By Martin Cohen

Energy or ethics? On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine after months of rising tensions and failing diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine. In the days that followed, Russia attacked from the air, land, and sea — killing thousands of people, mostly civilians, and devastating the lives of more than 44 million people.

Outside Russia and a handful of satellite countries, most people think that's plain wrong. But here’s the more tricky ethical dilemma: European countries pay about $850 million per day - repeat, per day! - for Russian oil and natural gas. Since February, this money has financed Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for Ecological Transition, was reported earlier this month saying that
‘It is very difficult to explain to European public opinion and Ukrainian society that we are still importing Russian energy that finances this war,’ and that such energy imports create ‘obvious moral tension’.
Indeed it does. And to reduce the ‘moral tension’, political leaders and an uncritical Western media have insisted that cutting the energy imports would be difficult, and would dramatically put up prices for consumers.

Take gas. The universal mantra about Europe needing Russian gas is misleading. Europe (like the US) has plenty of its own gas IF it stops burning it – to make electricity. Burning gas to make electricity is in any case a wasteful and short-term practice. 

Another argument offered for continuing to buy Russian energy is that Russia is a major supplier of diesel fuel and that if that supply were lost, operating diesel-powered trucks and farm equipment would become much more expensive. Journalists happily repeat such things. Yet typically, in Europe, the price of diesel is more than half made up of tax

Put another way, the choice is between continuing to fund atrocities like that in Bucha last week, in which the world saw "lifeless bodies, bloodied by bullets, and some with hands bound, had been left strewn about or shoveled into makeshift mass graves"  and a temporary interruption of government tax receipts. 

Diesel is only a small part of European energy from Russia though. The bigger questions are about coal, oil and above all gas.

Take coal. Today there is a a whopping carbon tax on coal: 42.33 Euro/t-CO₂ leading EU countries to drastically cut down their production and (to a lesser extent) their consumption of coal over the past two decades to meet climate change targets. However, rather hypocritically their reliance on imported coal, especially from Russia, has shot up. (The explanatory factor here is that European coal industries used to be unionised and expensive. Climate Change policy enabled governments to outmaneuver the powerful unions.) 

Nonetheless, the point is that today, as Alexander Bethe, chairman  of the German association of coal importers, has said, hard coal imports from Russia to Germany can easily be substituted. In a matter of months at most. Bethe named the US, Colombia, South Africa and Australia among the countries most likely to fill the gap.
‘There is a well-functioning world market. There are sufficient quantities available. Germany imported about 18 million tons of hard coal from Russia last year. That is only about 2% of the total world trade.’
Ethics is linked to what is possible. Cutting the flow of money to the Russians is seen in current circumstances as deeply troubling - and thus we are assured repeatedly that alternatives do not exist. Yet in fact they do. 

But what about Russian gas? As far as generating electricity goes, Europe has an internal market into which renewables, nuclear and coal could all - immediately - replace gas. The failure to do this is again a political decision.

Politicians seeking advice on what is possible in the energy sphere are being bamboozled by two powerful lobbies who are now blocking what on the face of it is the moral imperative to stop buying Russian energy. One lobby is the nuclear industry who have explicitly linked the ‘inability’ to stop buying Russian energy to their programme of new nuclear power stations: a message that the UK, for example, has eagerly adopted.

But the other lobby, particularly important in leading the otherwise liberal media away from campaigning to stop the energy imports from Russia… is the green one. It is the climate change lobby that insists that even now, power stations must run on imported Russian gas rather than European or American coal. The strength of the green lobby is so great that in the UK for example, the coal units of the country's largest power station, Drax, are idling now just when they could be operating and reducing the need for Russian gas. That said, during Boris Johnson's surprise visit with President Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9, the United Kingdom set an example for EU leaders of what can in fact be accomplished in sympathy with Ukraine, with the prime minister declaring an embargo on Russian energy.

More generally though in  Europe, the ‘virtuous’ carbon taxes have led electricity companies to burn (Russian) gas and coal rather than their own (as well as, of course, to use expensive renewable energies). 

The result is a strange kind of alliance that sociologists call a Baptist and Bootlegger coalition. The term describes the shared interests of the baptists who believe alcohol is evil, and the bootleggers who want scarcity to lead to higher profits. Bizarrely, at the moment, people who are convinced that they have to stop the world overheating have - whatever their intentions! - ended up on same side as a Russian army conducting a horrific ‘special operation’ on its neighbour. It’s a bitter irony indeed.


Roger said...

Great article! I totally agree that we should do everything we can to reduce our use of Russian energy. Here, in the US, I'm happy that President Biden has done that; although, we are relatively lucky in being able to produce a lot of gas here. What'd I really like to see Biden and all Western leaders do is to give periodic prime-time (8-11 at night here in the US) speeches laying out 1.) The reasons for fighting for democracy and self-determination against autocracies like Russia's. 2.) Specific short-, medium- and longer-term plans for energy usage. In the short-term, we'll need to increase our use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In the medium-term, we need to start building more green energy infrastructure and transitioning away from fossil fuels. In the longer-term, transition all, or most, of the way to renewable energy.
Although, I'm a Biden supporter, he's not so good at mobilizing public support for his goals by giving these prime-time "fireside chats". Hopefully, they're better at that in the UK, Europe and other Western countries; although, in your article, it sounds like they haven't been?
I also think we should build in some ethical requirements for doing business in China and other places that abuse human rights; although, I know it's a tricky political balance between economics and doing right.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks, Roger - and I pretty much agree with all that! Maybe add in the US could help by back-filling those fighter jets some European countries are muttering about helping Ukraine with… It's kind of hard to know if Biden is playing a very crafty game and keeping his cards hidden… or just barely keeping up!

Keith said...

The realpolitik of Europe’s continued importation of Russian oil and natural gas during the war’s perpetuation is based on expediency and self-interest — concerns over everyday, even mundane factors like the prospect of austerity measures (sufficiency of supplies for all sectors), inflation (pocketbook impacts), and government accountability (political risk). The imperatives of morality and justice, even over matters like Europe’s payments to Russia’s military, have taken a back seat to the banality of coercive pragmatism. I suspect, to borrow the terminology of this essay’s title, there’s little prospect in the short term (although not entirely hopeless) that ethics will foreseeably prevail over energy.

Roger said...

Dr. Cohen: Hi. My own view is that overall Biden has done pretty well on Ukraine especially in the beginning in declassifying intelligence to preempt Putin's plans and in rallying the NATO countries. But in the last 3-4 weeks, I think he's been a little slow in getting the heavier, longer-range weapons to Ukraine a little faster. I'm not sure about the fighter jets but mostly agree with you on them. Maybe, Poland would have been better to not talk about it in public and just send them over. Biden and his team seem a little too timid and study options to death sometimes. He does have a valid point about not wanting to escalate, though, but he might have overused that.

Keith: Hi. Unfortunately, I agree that energy and economics of Germany will prevail over doing what's right. I wish they'd gotten away from Russian energy a long time ago, but the US and other countries have similar problems with China, etc.

I hope the world survives and gets to a better future!

docmartincohen said...

Thanks, again, Roger and Keith. We don't usually try to comment at Pi on "breaking news" but there's no reason in principle why a blog like ours shouldn't contribute to a public debate! Good to see even as just this week passes, many more voices talking about tightening the energy embargo on Russia, which surely is the LEAST democratic nations can do, given this reluctance to test Mr Putin's 'red lines' with actual military assistance to Ukraine…

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It would seem contradictory in various ways. I would see it more philosophically: as the need to disrupt dynamics on which the warring nation is built. That may be essentially what non-violent direct action is about.

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