The consequences of the war in Ukraine are palpable even in Bratislava, over a thousand kilometres from the border. Ukrainian is heard more often on the streets, cars with Ukrainian number plates are appearing on the roads, the windows of shops and apartments are festooned with Ukrainian flags, and the city is alive with marches and initiatives in support of Ukraine. The street on which the Russian embassy is located has been renamed after murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, the embassy has had parking spaces withdrawn, and there have been calls for the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
One of the most humorous responses to the invasion was conceived by members of the Mier Ukrajine (“Peace to Ukraine”) initiative, inspired by a viral video of a tractor being used to tow away a Russian tank. As part of a so-called “Special Expulsion Operation”, a yellow-and-blue-painted tractor blasting “Běž Domů, Ivane” (“Go Home, Ivan”) – one of the anthems of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia during the summer of 1968 – from its speakers was parked in front of the Russian embassy. The only thing that has remained unaffected (in fact it actually experienced an upsurge following the Russian invasion) is the flow of oil and gas from Russia to Slovakia, and our payments for it.
Stop funding the war in Ukraine
When it comes to energy resources, Slovakia is heavily dependent on Russia. Oil is imported almost exclusively from Russia through the Druzhba oil pipeline. We are completely dependent on Russia for nuclear fuel; what is worse, our nuclear reactors are unable to function with fuel from any other source. The gas situation is not much better. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, Slovakia paid 1.32 billion euros for gas. Since 85 per cent of Slovakia’s gas is imported from Russia, this where most of the money ended up. Fossil fuel revenues constitute more than a third of the Russian state budget. In 2021, oil and gas earned Russia 119 billion US dollars; by October 2021 revenues were up to half a billion US dollars per day. It is therefore fair to say that, through our dependence on fossil fuels, we are directly funding Putin’s military adventures. Moreover, the high spot price for gas has pushed Russia’s profits even higher. Added to this is the fact that, since the invasion, the volume of gas streaming through Slovakia has doubled. According to clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment, Russia’s defence expenditure has grown in line with the rising value of Russian oil exports to the EU and the United Kingdom. Even in the upper echelons of politics, critical voices demanding an end to Russian fossil fuel imports are starting to make themselves heard. But since we are breaking free of Russian gas, why not just discard gas altogether?
We need to overcome our addiction, not just change the dealer
Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Besides financing the war in Ukraine, it also significantly contributes to the climate crisis. The combustion of natural gas releases carbon dioxide, the prime agent of climate change, while its extraction and storage is accompanied by the leakage of methane, which has 82.5 times more warming potential that of CO2 over a 20-year period. Methane is responsible for over 25 per cent of the warming we are experiencing today, and its concentration in the atmosphere is growing at its fastest rate since measurements began. The destructive impact of methane emissions on the climate, also in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, has been documented.
Because of poor awareness of the dangers and extent of methane leakage, gas was until recently viewed as a “greener” and “cleaner” fuel than notorious climate killers such as coal and oil. A true picture of just how much methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure only became available recently, thanks to the development of technologies that are capable of monitoring leakages from space or visualising them using infrared cameras.
Still, the consumption of gas is growing the fastest among all the world’s fossil fuels. The Slovak government is even promoting investments into gas as “green.” All this in spite of the fact that in 2020, gas-fired power plants were the biggest polluters in the EU energy sector, producing even more emissions than power plants using brown coal.
And what does Slovakia say?
When I woke up on that fateful morning and found out that war had returned to Europe because Russian tanks had invaded Ukraine, my first steps did not lead me to my coffee machine. Instead I went to our gas boiler, which I switched off. It was a symbolic act, the consequences of which I was only able to bear for a couple of days. I was not the only one to reach for the off switch. Veronika Remišová, Minister of Investment, Regional Development, and Informatisation, turned off her heating too. But the meaning of this gesture was limited to signalling displeasure with Moscow. The government of Slovakia has been planning to use public money to further deepen our dependence on fossil gas, for example through subsidising domestic gas boilers and constructing an LNG terminal in order to secure fuel for ships and trucks. The upcoming months will show whether public money will continue to subsidise projects that deepen the climate crisis and our relations with gas importers, or whether this attitude will finally be reconsidered.
The response of our government to the war, in particular Minister of the Economy Richard Sulík of the centre-right Sloboda a Solidarita (“Freedom and Solidarity”) party, has been unsurprisingly unimpressive. Measures such as ordering a shipful of LNG from the United States and testing to see if we have enough gas to last us until the winter are woefully inadequate given the urgency of the situation we are facing. Although Karol Galek, State Secretary of the Ministry of Economy, has stated that Slovakia is not going to block the EU’s embargo on oil and gas, he also demanded that the EU financially compensate Slovakia and secure replacement supplies. Galek’s reluctance to engage in any kind of initiative to reduce Slovakia’s dependence on fossil fuels, as well as leaving us at the mercy of other countries, shows a complete lack of much-needed leadership in such unsettled times.
A more effective response to the Russian invasion, announced by Austrian Minister of Energy, Mobility, Environment, and Climate Protection Leonore Gewessler, is a new law on renewable heating. This law states that old boilers must be replaced by renewable heating systems or a district heating system. As a result of this, the Austrian heating sector should be carbon-free by 2040.
In the long term, renewable energy resources are not only more environmentally friendly, they are also easier on the wallet. However, we must recognise that the transition to renewable heating involves higher initial investment costs, which might not be affordable for all families. That is why the Austrian government has earmarked funds for low-income households, who will receive a full reimbursement of any costs incurred. The transition to renewables must not be a luxury available only to the richest. And Austria is not alone in stepping up its ambitions towards a green economy: Germany has rescheduled its transition to 100 per cent renewable energy to 2035.
Freedom comes with a price tag
There are ways for us to break our dependence on fossil fuels; what we lack is the will to act. We can no longer afford to limit our ambitions to what is politically acceptable or financially viable. Every freedom comes with a price tag, and the past month has clearly shown us that gas is not only harmful for the climate and family budgets but also for our geopolitical security. Environmental organisations have long alerted us to the fact that our dependence on fossil fuels is unsustainable. It is a tragedy that it has taken civilian deaths in a neighbouring country for our political representatives to start taking energy self-sufficiency seriously. That is why 2022 needs to mark a watershed moment. This year should be the last time we use gas-fired heating in our houses, the last time we see cars with internal combustion engines rolling off the production lines. We need public and private investors to focus all their efforts on developing renewable resources, promoting our energy independence, and protecting our environment and climate. No autocrat can tame the wind or command the sun not to shine.