Impact Investing | March 1, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine delivers a dose of green shock therapy

Amy Cortese and David Bank
ImpactAlpha Editor

Amy Cortese

ImpactAlpha Editor

David Bank

ImpactAlpha, Mar. 1 – The “shock therapy” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago was intended to speed the transition from planned economies to free markets through sudden and dramatic reform. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is spurring calls for a similarly sudden and dramatic turn away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy to reduce Russia’s geopolitical leverage. 

Heat pumps, for example, have jumped from near-obscurity to symbols of solidarity against Russian aggression. The energy-efficient appliances can both heat and cool homes and offices without burning fossil fuels.

Germany has suspended development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have brought Russian gas to its doors, and is accelerating plans to get to 100% renewable energy by 2035, from 2040. Putin has long used natural gas exports to threaten trading partners and forestall sanctions. 

The invasion may have done what years of convenings, pledges and “blah blah blah” (in the words of Greta Thunberg) among the global elite has failed to achieve: spark a full throttle green energy mobilization.

“Russia may inadvertently trigger a faster energy transition,” Simon Flowers of the consultancy Wood Mackenzie wrote even ahead of Russia’s invasion. “Threats to supplies and high prices resulting from the invasion could harden policy and action underway in the European Union, U.K. and elsewhere to move away from fossil fuels.”

Patriotic pumps 

Rather than burning fuel, heat pumps use a small amount of energy to transfer heat from one place to another. Even in relatively cold weather, heat can be transferred from the ground or air into a home or office. President Biden’s stalled Build Back Better legislation would provide homeowners rebates of up to $4,000 to install energy-efficient heat pumps.

Now others are touting the appliances as a way to help Europeans wean themselves off Russian oil and gas for home heating before next winter. By one estimate, Europe’s electric grid could handle 50 million heat pumps.

“How many heat pumps could we make and send to Europe in the next six months,” tweeted Jigar Shah, the renewable energy champion who runs the U.S. Energy Department’s loan office.

“President Biden should immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to get American manufacturers to start producing electric heat pumps in quantity, so we can ship them to Europe where they can be installed in time to dramatically lessen Putin’s power,” wrote Bill McKibben in a post headlined, “Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom.” 

Such a crash program could expand the understanding of the principle of “collective defense” enshrined in NATO’s founding treaty, says Ari Matusiak of the nonprofit Rewiring America, which is promoting plans to “electrify everything.” 

“This vigorous, proud and confident reclaiming of our trans-Atlantic alliance gives us a real shot at winning the climate fight once and for all,” Matusiak says.  

Migration equation

The Ukraine crisis may similarly reframe views of global migration. 

The scenes of more than 150,000 refugees entering Poland and Moldova played out just as the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released its latest report forecasting that millions of people will be displaced by the accelerating pace of climate change. But instead of refugees going to relatively stable neighboring countries like Poland and Moldova, picture millions of refugees pouring into countries that themselves have been knocked off-kilter by climate change.

More than 13 million people were displaced by extreme weather in 2019, the report said. 

“Human induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots,” Svitlana Krakovska, the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the IPPC reportedly told the assembled scientists. “Fossil fuels, and our dependence on them.” 

Her remarks, delivered just days after she and her colleagues were forced to leave the meeting and seek shelter, prompted an apology from a Russian climate delegate “on behalf of all Russians.” 

New world order

The disruption of the international order sparked by the invasion of Ukraine may come to be seen as part of a broader disruption in energy, transportation and food as cleaner, cheaper and just plain better alternatives take off. 

“We’re seeing the collapse of the old and breakthrough of the new,”  RethinkX’s Tony Seba tells ImpactAlpha. He predicts a decade of social and geopolitical volatility as the changes ripple through economies. “The scale of what happened in Russia is just the beginning.” 

Extractive industries are correlated with authoritarian regimes, he says. “Extractive organizing systems and extractive governance go hand in hand with extractive fossil fuel production systems.”

Conversely, the new era of abundant, zero-cost clean energy, transport and food, such as solar power and cellular agriculture, could lead to emissions reductions, local self-reliance and… peace. By the mid-2030s, he says, the cost of basic food, energy, transportation, materials and information will fall by a factor of 10.

“Technology disruptions in these foundational sectors have always had major implications, for both the collapse of the existing leading societies and the embrace of new societies, and we’re at that point in history.”

“It’s beyond abundance,” he says. “That mindset of scarcity is going to have to change quickly.”