How Has The War In Ukraine Shaped The Global Energy Market?

12:14 minutes

A large dark pile of goal rises in the foreground of the right side of the image, while a large machine with a boom like a crane rests in the background along a track. The machine, called a stacker, pours coal onto the pile on a sunny day with blue sky.
The energy market has shifted as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, but it is not yet clear whether the shift will drive demand for cleaner sources of energy. Credit: Shutterstock

Russia’s war on Ukraine sent shock waves through the global energy market. The United States and the United Kingdom stopped importing Russian oil and gas, and the European Union set a target of reducing their reliance on Russian fossil fuels by two thirds.

In the short term some countries may start relying more on dirty fossil fuels like coal to cushion the economic impact of the shifting energy market. However, some experts believe the current political situation may inspire a lasting transition to clean energy.

Guest host John Dankosky talks with Tim Revell, United States Deputy Editor at New Scientist about the changes to the global energy market and other top science news of the week, including the latest on the BA2 covid-19 variant, Orangutan slang, the winner of the prestigious Abel prize in mathematics, and lettuce genetically modified to prevent bone loss.

Segment Guests

Tim Revell

Tim Revell is Executive Editor at New Scientist in London, England.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOWSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky in for Ira Flatow this week. Later this hour, an exoplanet milestone. Plus we’ll talk about how climate change could make West Nile virus more common in the US. But first, Russia’s war on Ukraine has sent shock waves through the global energy markets. The US and UK have stopped importing Russian oil and gas, the EU has set a target of reducing their reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2/3, and just today President Joe Biden was in Brussels announcing a new plan with European leaders to increase shipments of liquefied natural gas to Europe to help in that effort.

But can this political situation spark a more rapid clean energy transition? Joining me now to talk about this and other top science news of the week is Tim Revell. He’s United States Deputy Editor at New Scientist. He’s based in New York City. Tim, welcome to Science Friday.

TIM REVELL: Thanks so much for having me.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: So, let’s start off with the current situation. How has this war in Ukraine changed the global energy supply?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so Russia is a big exporter of fossil fuels, oil, and natural gas. It’s number three in the world in terms of exports. And what has changed is that the invasion of Ukraine has made that politically untenable for a lot of countries. They no longer want to take Russian oil and natural gas. And so, in the short term what you’re seeing is countries immediately announcing plans about how they’re going to stop using oil and natural gas.

And my colleague at New Scientist, Adam Vaughan– he’s been investigating this week about what the potential knock-on effects of these decisions will be. And so, in the short term, you can’t just build solar panels, wind farms, and nuclear power plants overnight. And so, we’re sort of seeing two main things happening. And one of them is that some countries are looking to replace Russian oil and gas with coal, which is really bad because coal is much more polluting. And if you remember in November, 200 countries signed the COP26 agreement that was to try and phase down the use of coal across the world. So that’s not great.

And then the second thing that’s happening is that some countries are looking to import more liquid natural gas. But this is cleaner than coal, but it’s also having some unintended consequences. And the main one being that it’s causing the price to go up. And so that means that countries that currently rely on liquid natural gas– and this is the case in a lot of places in Asia that are trying to phase out coal– the price goes up. Ultimately, that means they’ll have to fall back on coal again.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: So of course, short term this is bad for the environment. Long term you mentioned the COP26 summit, have we been hearing from leaders in Europe and elsewhere that they are committed to all of these plans that they put in place despite the fact that the energy markets have changed so much in just the last few months?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, we’ve had some indications that those plans are still in place. We’ve had António Guterres, the UN General Secretary– he made a bit of an intervention this week saying it’s all very well having these ambitions to move away from Russian oil and gas, but it can’t be at the detriment to our climate change ambitions. We’re still waiting on quite a lot of the full detailed plans from countries about how they’re going to meet COP26 ambitions.

And my hope is that longer term, these two goals are really aligned. The idea of having a more secure energy source for your country or the countries that you are allied with and having more green and renewable energy. So hopefully we will see eventually that a lot of that investment that will go into securing up energy supplies will be directed towards cleaner and greener forms of energy.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: Some other news this week from the invasion of Ukraine. This week Russia also attacked a chemical plant there. And we’ve been watching what’s happening with nuclear sites in the country, but this is something new. I mean, what could this mean Tim, for the nature of attacks we might see them pursue in the future.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, it’s pretty worrying this and Joe Biden this week said that there are clear signs that Russia is considering the use of biological and chemical weapons. And one of the signs he pointed to is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been falsely accusing Ukraine of doing essentially planning the same thing even though there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. And this attack on a chemical plant in Ukraine perhaps shows that even if we don’t actually see chemical weapons being dropped by the Russian military, we might see chemical plants attacked.

And that can have a similar sort of effect. So, this one that was attacked was an ammonia plant in Sumy, Ukraine. And ammonia gas, it’s highly irritant and corrosive, and so, once it was released into the area a five-kilometer radius had to be set up and people had to stay indoors there. So, it didn’t cause a lot of harm beyond forcing people to stay inside but had a similar sort of effect that you might have with chemical weapons.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: We have to move to the other troubling global news story of the week and it’s COVID 19 and this BA.2 sub-variant. This week the WHO released a report about the virus’s spread in Europe. What did they find, Tim?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so the World Health Organization put out a report this week saying that part of the reason we’re seeing increases is down to BA.2. But part of it is also down to the way that coronavirus restrictions have been lifted and they particularly looked at 18 European countries, including France, Germany, the UK, and Italy. And they say the problem is they’ve lifted restrictions too suddenly. So, in England where I was around a month ago, we went from having various mask mandates, working from home, to pretty much all legal restrictions being lifted. And now cases are really on the rise in many of these countries and including in England.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: Does this tell us anything about what is likely to happen in the US? I mean we’ve looked to Europe before in terms of what’s coming next.

TIM REVELL: It’s often been the case that in the US a similar trajectory has been followed to what’s happening in the UK but a few weeks or a few months later. And Anthony Fauci said in a press conference this week at the White House that around 30% to 40% of new cases in the US are this BA.2 sub-variant. And then there was a CDC report that backed this up saying 35% of new US coronavirus cases last week were BA.2, and that’s jumping from 22% the previous week and 16% the week before.

But there is some potentially positive news in all of this, and that’s that even though some countries have been criticized by the World Health Organization deaths are actually still decreasing. There’s also a lot of immunity out there from the previous Omicron wave and hopefully spring in the northern hemisphere will mean fewer indoor gatherings and hopefully just an overall reduction in cases.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: Let us hope on that front. So, I think after all of that we need to pivot to something just a little bit lighter, Tim.

TIM REVELL: Oh, thank goodness.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: I know exactly, right? There’s a new study about orangutans. And it studied variations in one of the noises that they make a noise called “kiss-squeaks” and we’ve got a clip here of what that sounds like.


JOHN DANKOWSKY: OK, so it does sound like a kiss squeak. Tim, what exactly was the study about?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, I’m very glad you managed to get that clip because I was having nightmares last night about you asking me to recreate it on the show. So yeah, I absolutely love this one and this is a story that I read about in The Guardian by the science correspondent there Nicola Davis. And it’s about how orangutans use slang.

So, this “kiss-squeak” is a sort of alarm call that orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra use but there are many, many different variations of it. And a research team spent over 6,000 hours over five years listening out for these “kiss-squeaks” and observing what the differences were. And they found that often new calls would appear on the scene and whether they stuck or not tended to depend on the size of the group.

So, in a small, tight-knit group they didn’t come up with new “kiss-sqeaks” as often, but when they did suddenly all the other orangutans would start using this new “kiss-squeak” too. But then in larger groups, there would be orangutans constantly trying to stick out from the crowd coming up with new “kiss-squeaks,” but they wouldn’t always stick. It was only occasionally that one would then suddenly become part of the vernacular.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: That’s amazing. It reminds me so much of the way human language evolves. It reminds me of how TikTok culture evolves. It tells us a lot about ourselves, doesn’t it?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, absolutely. The thing that it really reminded me of was it’s a little bit like Mean Girls, isn’t it? Where Gretchen’s like Gretchen stop trying to make that “kiss-squeak” happen. It’s that sort of thing. And yeah, I mean there’s a really nice quote in this story from Adriano Lameira who was the lead researcher on this. And he says, “that individuals are wanting to show off their coolness and how much of a rebel they are.”

JOHN DANKOWSKY: OK. From something that’s maybe easy for us to understand to something that’s harder to understand, the Abel prize in mathematics was awarded to Dennis Sullivan for his work in fusing chaos theory and topology. First of all, maybe you can explain what the Abel prize is?

TIM REVELL: There’s no Nobel Prize for mathematics, and so the Abel Prize is sort of the closest thing that there is to it. It is put together by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and it’s awarded by a member of the Norwegian royal family each year. Often, it’s awarded in a similar way to the Nobel Prize in that it’s for a lifetime’s worth of achievement.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: And tell me exactly what his research does. I mean, why did he win this prize?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, his research is not the easiest to explain but he’s been at the forefront of this subject called topology. And that is a sort of strange sort of geometry, a strange mathematical way of viewing shapes. And the key thing about it is that in topology two shapes are considered the same, they’re considered to be equal if you can squish one of them into looking the same as another.

And this sounds a bit weird, but topology turns out to be really useful for everything from quantum physics, to the study of new materials, and even computer science. And one of the things that Sullivan is particularly known for is managing to connect seemingly different areas of mathematics using tools like topology.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: Interesting, well congratulations to him. And a last story here. You’ve brought us one about lettuce that has been genetically modified to prevent bone loss in space. C’mon, tell us about this.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so the future of space food is here and it’s lettuce. And it’s actually pretty cool. So, they managed to take some lettuce and genetically modify it so that it could produce this bone-forming hormone called parathyroid hormone. And the question is so why would you want to do that? And well, in space, bones deteriorate really quickly.

So, on the International Space Station astronauts lose around 1% to 1.5% of their bone mass each month. And so, they have to exercise for two hours a day to try to stave this off. And they have to keep their trips pretty short to around six months for the most part. And this just wouldn’t be possible if we ever want to go to Mars where it takes 10 months to get there in the first place.

And then obviously you want to spend some time there before coming back again. And so, the hope is that something like this new space lettuce could help if you consumed enough of it each day then hopefully it could help prevent bone loss by instead stimulating bone formation.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: And it seems like it could help people here on Earth too.

TIM REVELL: You know this hasn’t been tested yet, but there are conditions, particularly linked to aging where your bones become more brittle and you lose some bone mass. And maybe this lettuce would help. The one big caveat on this at the moment is that for an astronaut to get the right amount of this hormone, they would have to eat 13 ounces of lettuce a day. Which is nearly like a whole lettuce every single day, which if you think of the monotony that you’ve already got in the travel from here to Mars feels like that’s too much to ask an astronaut to have to go through.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: I guess, but it sounds better than squeezing your lunch out of a tube.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, that’s right and the hope is that they could grow these on the journey. So, it would actually be fresh lettuce it wouldn’t be some weird blended-up lettuce kept in a vacuum bag. But the hope is that this is a proof concept and in the near future you might be able to increase the amount of hormone per lettuce leaf.

JOHN DANKOWSKY: Sounds very cool. Tim Revell is US Deputy Editor at New Scientist. He’s based in New York, New York. Tim, thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

TIM REVELL: Thanks so much for having me.

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