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Fossil Fuel

Russia is in the news and Russia is also a major player in the global commitment to achieve net zero. Can Russia truly be sustainable? How do we make sense of all this?

I spoke to an expert. I spoke to Louis Cox-Brusseau of Sibylline.


Anthony Day:

My guest today is Louis Cox-Brusseau, who works at Sibylline, a strategic advisory firm with hubs in London, Singapore and New York and correspondents across the world. Louis joined Sibylline's Europe/Eurasia desk in January 2021 following a six year stint working in the European institutions and Central European Think Tank network. As an expert in European security and defence, Russia and the Eastern partnership in Central Europe, he provides expertise on security and defence policy, migration, foreign direct investment and climate security. He's previously worked as a policy advisor on the European parliament's foreign affairs committee, acting as special advisor on the security and defence and human rights subcommittees.

His areas of interest in parliament included European security and defence, migration policy, climate change, cyber security, Russia and the Eastern partnership and foreign direct investment in the EU. Upon leaving Brussels, Louis worked for several years as a research fellow and independent consultant in the Visegrad region working with Czech, Polish, Slovak and Hungarian governments and region NGO's on policy projects covering EU/Ukraine relations, Visegrad military cohesion and conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Cambridge and two master's degrees from Cambridge and King's College London focusing on conflict simulation, negotiation and conflict resolution and international relations theory. He speaks English and French fluently and his conversational in Russian and Czech. Louis, welcome to The Sustainable Futures Report.

Louis Cox-Brusseau:

Hi, Anthony. Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.


Russia/Ukraine Border

The Sustainable Futures Report is about sustainability and I want to talk about Russia because it's a major producer of fossil fuels and if we are to achieve net zero we're going to have to eliminate fossil fuels. Of course, at this moment 100 million people across Europe and many others across the world are anxiously watching developments on the Russia/Ukraine border. The situation has been described as potentially the most dangerous since 1945 and you can say it's irresponsible to talk about anything else.

While the situation on Ukraine's Russian border is, undoubtedly, a clear and present danger, climate crisis is a clear but remote danger, arguably much more serious even than the present situation. But it's remote and understandably, people give it far less attention than it really deserves. But can we separate the geopolitical situation from the climate crisis? Let's put things into context and start by looking at the present tensions.

Louis, they seem to have taken most people by surprise but has all this been building up for a while?


Climate Crisis

Thanks, Anthony. That's a very good question to start things off. I think, as you say, it is very important to put things into context here. Firstly, there is definitely a connection between what's happening now and Europe's longer term response to the climate crisis but you're absolutely right; things have been building up for a while. Whereas we may only recently have seen mass media attention given to the Russia/Ukraine crisis given in the west, it's important to note that Ukraine has been in a permanent state of low-level conflict since 2014 when the Russian Federation annexed Crimea. This is definitely something which has, in some respects, flown beneath the radar but obviously, for Ukrainians, it's become a part of their daily lives.

Certainly, what we've seen in the last few weeks has marked, as some have already said, the most serious escalation in military deployments and tension since the Second World War.


Energy Dimension

There is clearly an energy dimension to this whole dispute and one of the major things, of course, is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a major pipeline which will deliver gas from Russia under the Baltic to Germany and that will add to the gas which Russia is already supplying to Germany and the rest of Europe. How is that going to play out?


Nord Stream 2

Again, a really interesting question. There are two dimensions to this question of Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the bigger question of how Russian gas and energy supplies to Europe will play out in the coming decades. You're absolutely right. Germany, in particular, is very reliant on Russian gas but it's actually one of the more reliant countries in the EU and it would be wrong to say that all European countries are equally reliant. When we're talking about Nord Stream 2 we're also talking, at the same time, about this question of divergence in the European energy market and which countries tend to be most reliant on Russia and, indeed, which countries tend to be most reliant on gas.

Let's not forget that Europe isn't as completely homogeneous in terms of the progress that it's made in terms of decarbonisation, in terms of diversifying toward more sustainable sources of energy in the longer term.


Nord Stream 2 is complete but is not operational. In fact, President Biden has said that if Russia does actually invade Ukraine it will never be operational. It could be argued that he's got an axe to grind there because the United States produces a lot of gas and I think they'd be delighted to export it to the UK and to Europe. Of course, that would need quite a lot of infrastructure investment because the ships aren't available yet but there is an angle there and if it went that far and Nord Stream 2 never opened, that would presumably be a thorn in Russia's side almost indefinitely.


Net Zero 2060

It certainly would be a big issue for Russia. It would certainly put President Putin's plans to achieve net zero by 2060 into question given that the very limited ... It has to be said ... Plans presented by the Russian Federation for decarbonisation lack a clear and well laid out road map toward that goal, firstly. But what we do know is they do plan to increase the competitiveness of Russian hydro-carbons and to increase their reliance on energy export.

If Nord Stream 2 were to be shut off completely, indefinitely, that would have a very large impact on Russia in the long term. It is worth noting that in the short term, this is probably something the Kremlin believes it can sustain. The Russian Central Bank has quite a significant reserve, which it believes it would be able to use to survive, as it were, European sanctions up to and including a full closure of Nord Stream 2. In the longer term, this is something which will be very, very difficult for Russia to sustain and that's one reason why some analysts of the current situation have some very, very tentative hope that we're likely to see this develop as a short-term situation and in the long term, Russia will have to maintain a more positive attitude toward Europe in order to retain that connection in terms of the energy market.


Consequence for Ukraine

If they can actually persuade the powers to be that the pipeline can be opened, then that means they can divert some of the gas which is currently sent through Ukraine. That would have an effect on Ukraine because it's currently charging transit fees. How serious would that be?


Potentially quite serious. The Ukrainian energy company, Naftogaz, stated in 2019 that if Nord Stream 2 were to be open fully, Ukraine would lose approximately $3 billion per year in natural gas transit fees. What it would also do in the midterm is decrease Ukraine's influence in Europe as an energy supplier and potentially, therefore, leave Ukraine more vulnerable to Russian interference at the military level. In the short term, potentially quite severe, indeed.


Net Zero in Russia's Interests?

Going back to what you were saying about Russia having a 2060 target for net zero, is net zero really in their interest because of this vast store of fossil fuels that they've got, which I believe accounts for a significant proportion of their foreign earnings?


It absolutely does. It's a vital pillar to the economy and I think that there's a degree of brinkmanship or gamesmanship, if you like, going on in the Kremlin currently. What has been seen from the Russian side is that Europe is making strides in attempting to diversify, firstly, where it gets its gas from but also what kinds of energy are used. Certainly, we've seen the EU make relatively promising strides recently in trying to establish new agreements with Algeria and Qatar in terms of energy transfer. But from the Russian side there's still some belief that this may not happen soon enough in order to fully immunise Europe, if you like, against the possibility of a cessation in Russian gas. Whether or not Russia is correct in the long term, in the short term there's definitely belief on the Kremlin side that this kind of impact could taxed, so to speak.

In the longer term, this would pose a much more structural, much more existential problems for President Putin or, indeed, for whoever happens to succeed him within the coming decades. This is something that will require a very, very large re-shuffle in how Russia approaches its own net zero policy, if, indeed, it plans to at all.


Benefits of Global Warming

Looking at another aspect of the climate crisis, it's been suggested that global warming could actually work in the geographic favour of Russia in so far as lands which are currently permafrost, which are frozen, could thaw, could support agriculture, could support population. How realistic is that?


Again, it's a very good question. It's something which is under study both from the Western point of view and also within Russia, itself, that in a sense, such a development would decrease Russian reliance on food export. That will be a very positive thing in the short term. Looking at the wider Central Asian region, we've already begun to see quite serious impacts of climate change in other Central Asian countries and this has really had a very, very strong impact on how they product food or how they manage to sustain populations. And in no small part, it's also driven things like depopulation and quite radical resettlement of populations.

I think it's something which we will come to assess more as time moves on. In the short term, again, we've seen a lot of negative impact from climate change; thinking specifically of the major Siberian wild fires from 2021. Any short term benefit I see is questionable, to say the least, in the short term. There's always hope but it doesn't appear positive for now.


Developing Situation

We're recording this on Monday the 21st of February for publication on Wednesday the 23rd. I know this is an impossible question to ask but how do you see the situation changing by then?


It is a difficult question but it's the most important one. We are probably in the most fluid and most dangerous phase of the tension as yet for two reasons. First of all, we have seen an inarguable increase in actual hostilities on the Russia/Ukraine border and, indeed, around the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics. There has been an upsurge in conflict, specifically in terms of shelling. It's not clear yet whether the Russian intention would be to initiate a more substantial military deployment in the Donbas or whether it would try to commit to a much more meaningful invasion of the wide Ukrainian territory.

Anyone's Game

Really, at the moment, it's anyone's game but it's certainly the most dangerous moment we've seen so far and there is a very, very real chance, especially watching Russian domestic messaging, that we could see a real conflict break out in the next 24 to 48 hours. It's important to remember at this state the Russian domestic media is pushing the narrative very, very strongly that Ukraine is acting as an aggressor against the separatist territories in Eastern Ukraine and that such a move may be seen as a precursor to a more serious deployment of Russian forces, whether in the separatist region, themselves, or as an invasion into Ukrainian territory.


Biden/Putin Summit

Do you think a Biden/Putin summit will go ahead?


It would be a very positive development. At present, there are no concrete plans to do so despite both sides agreeing in theory, in principle, that such a summit can and should go ahead. If it were to go ahead, it would most likely delay hostilities in the worst case scenario but also a possibility to a more positive outcome in the event of some kind of diplomatic accord being reached. It is very hard to see at this stage how an accord could be reached given the past few weeks have seen, essentially, a failure in diplomacy. Russia has maintained steadfastly that it wishes to see several assurances the Ukraine will not join NATO. That's something which NATO and, indeed, most of the Western members have stated equally steadfastly they cannot agree to.

At this stage, it's very, very concerning and it's not clear how there can be a diplomatic resolution right now.


Wait and Hope

Well, we can speculate. We can speculate endlessly but I think the most productive thing we can do is simply to watch and hope. Thank you very much for your insights, Louis. That's put a lot of things into context and it's been very valuable. Thank you for joining The Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you for your time.


Thank you very much for having me.


Louis Cox-Brusseau of Sibylline.

Who knows what the situation will be by the time this podcast goes live?


We talk about a wide range of issues in the Sustainable Futures Report, not least about water, that resource vital to all life. I've come across a podcast called water X future. It's sponsored by Aquaporin, a water technology company based in Denmark which specialises in natural water treatment. The next episode will be on 2nd March. It’s about cathedral thinking: that’s taking the ultra-long view. Past episodes include water in space, the taste of water, waste water and the tiny proportion of water that’s actually drinkable. Find water X future in your preferred podcast app … and let me know what you think.


That’s it for today’s Wednesday Interview. Next week we’ll talk to a man whose organisation is successfully limiting deforestation, a problem which is widespread across the developing world. On Friday there will be the usual round-up of sustainability news. If you don’t want to miss any episodes you can sign up on the website at And if you become a patron you generally get each episode at least a day earlier than everyone else. Details of that on the website as well.

That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.

I’m Anthony Day.

Until next time.



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A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
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