How the World Learned to Love Fossil Fuels Again

In 2022, happy visions of a green future gave way to existential worries about energy.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Electricity workers check solar panels in China.
Electricity workers check solar panels in China.
Electricity workers in a boat check solar panels at a photovoltaic power station built in a fishpond in Haian, China, on July 19, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

2022

In 2022, happy visions of a green, digital, post-industrial future crashed into a sobering reality—the fact that the welfare of the world’s 8 billion people rests on access to plentiful and affordable energy. The world remains in the grips of the first global energy crisis in more than 40 years: Electricity prices are at nosebleed levels in Europe, factories have shut down, governments have prepared blackout plans, and Ukrainians are freezing in their homes.

It’s easy to blame energy turmoil on Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has sharply cut gas exports to punish Europeans for aiding Ukraine, and Western countries are boycotting Russian oil. But the crisis has been years in the making, thanks in part to energy transition policies that paid short shrift to how much societies still rely on traditional fuels. Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, too, was entirely homemade as politicians ignored plentiful warnings that Moscow could one day use energy as a weapon.

Even as global leaders continued to propose ever more ambitious targets for abandoning fossil fuels, 2022 was dominated by the fear of losing access to them. U.S. President Joe Biden pestered OPEC to pump more oil, while Europe scrambled for shipments of natural gas. Germany, once the world’s poster child for the green energy transition, turned to coal to replace Russian gas and zero-carbon nuclear power, which puts the country on track to higher emissions for the second year in a row. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter by far, announced it would prioritize energy security over the switch to new fuels.

In 2022, happy visions of a green, digital, post-industrial future crashed into a sobering reality—the fact that the welfare of the world’s 8 billion people rests on access to plentiful and affordable energy. The world remains in the grips of the first global energy crisis in more than 40 years: Electricity prices are at nosebleed levels in Europe, factories have shut down, governments have prepared blackout plans, and Ukrainians are freezing in their homes.

It’s easy to blame energy turmoil on Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has sharply cut gas exports to punish Europeans for aiding Ukraine, and Western countries are boycotting Russian oil. But the crisis has been years in the making, thanks in part to energy transition policies that paid short shrift to how much societies still rely on traditional fuels. Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, too, was entirely homemade as politicians ignored plentiful warnings that Moscow could one day use energy as a weapon.

Even as global leaders continued to propose ever more ambitious targets for abandoning fossil fuels, 2022 was dominated by the fear of losing access to them. U.S. President Joe Biden pestered OPEC to pump more oil, while Europe scrambled for shipments of natural gas. Germany, once the world’s poster child for the green energy transition, turned to coal to replace Russian gas and zero-carbon nuclear power, which puts the country on track to higher emissions for the second year in a row. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter by far, announced it would prioritize energy security over the switch to new fuels.

Few expect much relief in 2023, not least because of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the West’s continued attempts to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. As China abandons its zero-COVID policy and reopens its economy, energy prices could soar again. One thing is certain: It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Here are our five top reads on how 2022 pulled out the carpet from under the energy debate.

1. Russia’s War Is the End of Climate Policy as We Know It

By Ted Nordhaus, June 5

Russia’s war in Ukraine marks the start of a new era of geopolitically driven energy insecurity and resource competition, Ted Nordhaus writes. That has moved climate concerns down on the list of priorities, but there may be a silver lining. Given the failure of international climate efforts to make much of a dent in emissions over the past 30 years, a turn back toward energy security concerns and away from utopian schemes could actually accelerate the shift to a lower-carbon global economy in the coming decades.

2. With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

By Brenda Shaffer, Sept. 29

Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Grohnde nuclear power in Germany.
Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Grohnde nuclear power in Germany.

Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Grohnde Nuclear Power Plant in Germany on Jan. 21, 2021. Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images

Don’t blame Europe’s energy crisis on the Kremlin. Instead, Europeans are facing the consequences of two decades of wrongheaded policies, Brenda Shaffer argues. Making themselves dependent on Russia, trying to phase out coal and nuclear power at the same time, and ignoring projections about continued demand for oil and gas, the crisis is the fault of Europe’s own policymakers.

3. Biden Was Always Going to Need Saudi Arabia

By Steven A. Cook, June 8

Biden’s election campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” might have pleased his progressive base, but it was always bound to fail, FP columnist Steven Cook writes. As long as the world needs oil—and as long as Washington has interests vis-a-vis Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East—the United States will have to engage the Gulf region’s most important security actor and the main power behind OPEC.

4. Green Energy’s Dirty Secret: Its Hunger for African Resources

By Cobus van Staden, June 30

The scramble for the resources to power the energy transition—above all, the vast amounts of critical metals that will be needed to make electric-car batteries—threatens to spread destruction and exploitation across the developing world, Cobus van Staden writes. Africa is home to many of the biggest reserves, but experts worry that efforts by Chinese, U.S., and other companies to extract them will leave a trail of poverty and environmental degradation.

5. Reasons Nuclear Power Has Returned to the Energy Debate

By Jason Bordoff, Jan. 3

If politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens believed their own rhetoric about climate change, support for nuclear energy would be much higher, FP columnist Jason Bordoff argues. As policymakers set ever more ambitious targets to eliminate carbon emissions, there is growing recognition that the path will be faster, easier, and cheaper if nuclear energy is part of the mix of solutions.

Stefan Theil is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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