Revulsion over Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has given Americans something that we have been missing for a long time – a sense of moral certainty that crosses party lines.

No matter where you stand on domestic politics, most people are finding it easy to choose sides between Russian atrocities and the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people, as embodied by their president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Americans are desperately looking for ways to aid Ukraine and punish Russia that fall short of war between two nuclear superpowers. The best way would be to speeding up the transition to renewable energy from fossil fuels.

Burning gas and oil is the leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions, which are warming the planet, creating a variety of destructive phenomena including forest fires, drought, severe storms and flooding. It is making parts of the world uninhabitable, which is projected to drive migration and destabilize governments.

Our appetite for fossil fuels also makes Putin into a world power. Russia is the world’s third leading producer of oil and the second leading producer of natural gas; combined, the commodities make up the core of the country’s $1.5 trillion economy.

Since the invasion, the Biden administration and European allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, isolating it from the world banking system in ways designed to inflict real pain on ordinary people. But the world is still buying Russian oil and gas at the same rate as before the tanks rolled across the border. The energy sector was carved out of the sanctions because cutting off Russian exports would increase energy prices and drive up inflation, which is already high on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Europe gets roughly a third of its energy from Russia, and Germany gets half of the gas it uses to run the continent’s industrial powerhouse. Collectively, Russia sold $100 billion worth of petroleum to Europe last year, and those sales are continuing even as the war drives prices higher.

The United States buys about 4 percent of the oil we use from Russia. There is a move in Congress to ban those imports, which would be a good symbolic gesture but would have little impact on Putin if it drives up the price of the oil and gas he still sells.

There is political pressure on Congress to increase domestic production of oil and gas, and we could probably replace what we buy from Russia (but even that would take time). But we couldn’t produce enough oil and gas to displace Russia as a major exporter of the world’s energy and take away its ability to make war on its neighbors and blackmail the industrialized world.

But a big commitment to renewable energy would do just that.

Natural gas has long been seen as a “bridge fuel” between coal and a green-energy economy. It has been clear for a while that dependence on Russian petroleum is bad not only for the climate, but for Europe’s political autonomy. Unlike oil prices, which are volatile and going up, renewable energy is getting cheaper, and once it’s installed, there are no fuel costs. Solar panel-building nations can’t hold the world hostage the way oil producers can, because once the equipment is installed, it can’t be cut off.

While some of the technology is still emerging, like green hydrogen to power ships and heavy equipment, most of what we would need to wean ourselves off oil is here now, and getting cheaper all the time. Electric vehicles and wind- and solar-powered electric heating systems with battery backups could quickly eliminate the need for Russian oil if we are committed to financing the upfront costs.

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Ironically, the invasion of Ukraine will likely speed up the transition to renewables because of what it has done to oil prices. Putin’s war on Ukraine affects the cost of oil on the world market, increasing the price of a gallon of gas in a storage tank in Maine even if that gas was pumped from an American well.

“Oil staying above or near $100 a barrel for a protracted period of time just makes renewable investment look better,” Sarah Ladislaw, a managing director at the think tank RMI, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “If the price environment and the strategic conflict lasts a bit longer, I think it drives people to find alternatives.”

The transition from fossil fuels to a carbon-free economy has been a long-term strategy to fight climate change. Now it’s also the short-term tactic to fight Putin’s fossil fuel-fired ability to threaten its neighbors.

If we want to stand with Ukraine, we should stop burning oil.


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