Europe in the era of “War Ecology”

It has been said, repeatedly, that Italy represents ‘a laboratory’ which has the ability to produce new political forms in an astonishing way. Aside of the infamous workshop of the twenty-year fascist period, it should be noted that from Tangentopoli, to the imaginary digital party of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, from Berlusconi’s trajectory to Giorgia Meloni’s ‘techno-sovreignism’, over the last decades the Italian political system has produced formulas anticipating some of the major global trends.

For some years now, however, one exception has found our country strangely lagging behind: while green parties are experiencing a phase of electoral growth throughout Europe positioning themselves at the centre of institutional plots, in Italy there is a noticeable absence of a large-scale structured ecological movement. There are a variety of underlying causes to the phenomenon, however one effect is clear: the debate regarding the energy transition and climate risks is not always approached carefully – with the attention that the actuality requires when attempting to think about structured political affairs.

By dismissing ecology as a matter of custom, a utopian movement or a second-rate phenomenon to be ironised about, we risk losing sight of the very profound debate that articulates the climate transition in conjunction with economic policies and the explosion of geopolitical rivalries in this new phase of globalisation: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) promoted by the Biden administration in the summer of 2022 and the 14th Five-Year Plan delineated by Xi Jinping in October 2021 are just two pillars of this founding process. Both teach us that, ultimately, one of the defining elements in the 2020s is not so much that ecology reconfigures the political space, but that all the elements in the political space are politically structured by ecology.

The war in Ukraine is a very concrete example providing a clear view of this shift. Putin’s war is provoking an earthquake in the planet’s ongoing geopolitical reconfiguration. To understand the transformations it is producing in Italy and Europe, it is worth starting not only from an energetic  point of view, but also from an interpretation which is fundamentally ecological.

The concept of “war ecology” was developed by the brilliant French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier in the pages of the Le Grand Continent a few weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, and was then the subject of a scholarly publication (War Ecology: A New Paradigm). His reasoning can be summarised as follows: “On the one hand, political ecology is redefined by geopolitics to the extent that the shift towards sustainability be based on the need to fight a strategic rival — in this case Russia, an aggressive petro-state” ; geopolitics is reciprocally influenced by the climate imperative, which is reshaping the landscape of assets and obstacles in the transition.”

This viewpoint has an infrastructural dimension and has triggered important effects, defining the Commission’s and European states’ reaction to the war in Ukraine. As of 24 February 2022, fossil energy – causing more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the International Energy Agency’s estimates – is at the heart of Putin’s war. In 2021, Russia supplied 40 per cent of Europe’s total natural gas imports. Today, the urgency to make the Union independent of Russian hydrocarbon imports is linked both to the desire to weaken Moscow’s war capacity and to the need to accelerate the fight against climate change in order to support the Paris Agreement’s goal.

Several indicators allow us to grasp the transformations taking place: firstly, the Member States’ massive support to protect consumers from rising energy prices is the most visible sign of state intervention in the energy sector, which is set to continue and produce a change in market logic. In total, European countries have spent over 700 billion Euros since autumn 2021.

Then, there is the diversification of supply sources: although Europeans are continuing to import Russian hydrocarbons, including LNG, these now account for only 8% of total natural gas imports: of the four pipelines connecting the continent to Russia, two have been shutdown (Nord Stream 1 and Yamal), one has seen its flow increase (Turksteam) and yet another one, crossing through Ukraine, continues to transport gas, but in a much smaller quantities. With the Chinese economy being crippled by the zero Covid policy, the  decline was offset by LNG and gas imports from Norway. Bilateral agreements – in the case of Italy, which is very active in this field, with Angola, Congo, Egypt and Algeria – are expected to offset Russian imports in the coming years.

Thirdly, the reduction of energy consumption has become a geopolitical factor: the 27 have agreed on a 15% reduction of gas demand between August 2022 and March 2023 and a 10% reduction of gross electricity consumption – the data available already shows a significant consumption reduction in Germany, France and the Netherlands, which however is based on individual responsibility and sobriety. As Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans explained “Putin has already lost the ecology war”.

With the energy crisis, the rapid development of renewable energy has become synonymous with supply security for European leaders: Germany aims for 100 per cent renewables in its energy mix by 2035 (80 per cent by 2030). The Commission has suggested to increase the target of 40% renewables by 2030 to 45% and the energy efficiency target from 9% to 13%. In all this we can see how the grammar of war ecology also acts on a symbolic level, providing a new narrative framework for political action. A few weeks after the invasion, a campaign by the European Greens expressed, with a détournement of war propaganda aesthetics, the necessary acts of sobriety in support of the war efforts: “Isolate Putin. Insulate homes”, said a poster with the colours of the Ukrainian flag in the background.

The war in Ukraine has in this sense continued the process of consolidating the role of the Green Deal – which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2023 – by helping to give it a status as a European policy configuration. As the PNRR – which already called for Member States to spend at least 37% on measures to combat climate change – had already shown, it is not just a policy, but a dynamic framework for most fundamental and long-term policy actions.

Is the war ecology the key to a new realism?