Fossil Fuels Aren’t the Answer to European Energy Crisis—Peace Is

Fossil Fuels Aren’t the Answer to European Energy Crisis—Peace Is

Photograph by Robert Rieger / Connected Archives

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

As the war in Ukraine rages on, so does Europe’s energy crisis. The Frontline talks to a youth climate activist in Poland who believes clean energy is the answer.

Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak became a climate activist when she was 17 years old. Now 21, Jędroszkowiak works with Fridays for Future in Poland. Her work has led her to confront government officials like French President Emmanuel Macron and meet climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate. Though Jędroszkowiak’s activism used to focus on women’s rights and feminism, the world of climate justice has shown her the real root of society’s problems: the greedy and powerful putting profit above people.

 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jędroszkowiak has been dedicating her time to seeking peace for her Ukrainian peers. The war has launched Europeans—and the world—into a new reality. There’s the threat of violence spilling over into their communities as violence tends to do. There’s also the urgency around energy access—and how Europe can ensure there are enough resources to keep everyone warm this winter without financially contributing to Russia’s war machine. 

 

Since the mid-20th century, Russia has been transporting gas across Europe. The country has the world’s largest supply of this fossil fuel. Europe has benefited the most from Russian fossil fuel exports. Since the war, however, Europe and the U.S. have been trying to distance themselves from Russia. After all, the profits Russia makes from selling its fossil fuels account for nearly half of its federal budget. That money, then, goes toward weapons and bombs that are literally killing Ukrainians.

 

The situation leaves Europe in a particularly tough spot. If leaders buy energy from Russia, they’re supporting a war. Without Russia, they risk leaving their constituents in the dark. That’s a risk leaders are willing to take in the name of peace and solidarity with Ukraine. As a result, wood burning is making a comeback in Sweden. In Poland, air quality is hurting as more coal is burned. France is restarting coal-fired power plants. Now, families may have to face scheduled blackouts while others struggle to pay their high energy bills. A newly issued price cap on Russian oil leaves the future feeling even more uncertain. 

 

What is certain, however, is that fossil fuels won’t last forever. The crisis has created a rare opportunity for clean energy growth, as Justine Calma has reported in The Verge. This is what Jędroszkowiak wants to see more of. It’s what she’s been working on all year. She spoke to Atmos to give some insight into the European energy crisis and her fight for peace.

 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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YESSENIA FUNES

Wiktoria, I would love for you to introduce yourselves to our readers. Where are you based? What’s your climate activism look like? Why are you someone that can help them understand the energy crisis in Europe?

WIKTORIA JĘDROSZKOWIAK

I’m a climate justice activist based in Warsaw, Poland. I’ve lived in Poland my whole life. Since 2018, I’ve been doing climate activism, but since the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine, I’ve been doing everything to bring forth the story of how Russia is a terrorist and imperial state based on how we, Europeans, are dependent on its fossil fuels.

 

I think that it’s very important to show the connections between the actual catastrophes of our lives and fossil fuels. I believe in the climate justice movement, and I really believe that the climate justice movement can be the peacemaking movement of our lifetimes.

YESSENIA

And what does the situation feel like in Europe right now? Are you concerned about energy access for yourself and loved ones?

WIKTORIA

The huge problem is the energy crisis and that the poorest communities in Poland are not able to heat their homes properly. That’s not only because of the war in Ukraine but also because of the coal gap in our energy mix. Our energy system in Poland is still based on coal.

 

The energy mix gap is huge, and we somehow need to fulfill that. The whole cost of living crisis is huge and challenging for all Polish people. But it’s hard to be anxious about that when you see Ukraine and how many places in Ukraine don’t have any access to power right now. And we know that the foundation of all of these problems is fossil fuels. Both the war and the energy crisis are deeply rooted in fossil fuel dependence.

YESSENIA

So for people in Poland, bills are skyrocketing. But given what you’re seeing in Ukraine and the threat people face to energy access at large, it sounds like while this is scary for you, the real fear is in what’s gonna happen to Ukrainians who don’t have any energy. Is that right?

(Photograph courtesy of Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak)

WIKTORIA

Well, that’s my perspective. I’m privileged enough to still have heating at my home. But I see so many families around me living outside of the big cities struggling with heating and not being able to buy coal, which is crucial for them to heat their homes this winter. It’s very bad. These people don’t have the space to think about Ukrainians.

YESSENIA

That’s so real. It feels so terrifying to imagine a winter where energy is not an option. What do you think needs to be done to address this? 

WIKTORIA

The answer is very clear, and it goes beyond this winter because next winter is not going to be better. In countries that are still based on fossil fuels, energy crises are going to become more challenging. The answer is going renewable. And our government in Poland, for example, still doesn’t understand that. There are many bills that are still being blocked in Poland because of huge ties between the government and the coal lobby. The answer is not buying fossil fuels from different dictators, either.

 

Going fully renewable but also insulating homes and making sure that the energy is produced here in Poland by Polish people (mainly those who are going to lose their jobs because of closing coal mines), for example, is crucial. Our government knows that. They just don’t want to admit that they were wrong and cost us lives and a warm winter this year.

YESSENIA

When you say the answer is going renewable, what are you doing in your activism to push that message and to pressure leaders, whether in Poland or Europe at large, to go in that direction?

WIKTORIA

When it comes to Europe, we try to show decision-makers that this ridiculous fairytale about gas should never be an option. We are trying to show that divestment from Russia, a dictatorship, shouldn’t be replaced by different dictatorships. When it comes to Poland and Eastern Europe, we’re trying to show the connection between different crises people are suffering. There’s the Russian War in Ukraine but also the energy crisis and inflation. We’re trying to be straightforward in showing our leaders that the reason behind all of this is the expansion of fossil fuels.

YESSENIA

Got it. In terms of your advocacy, what exactly do the efforts look like on the ground?

WIKTORIA

We’re trying to do local protests in different places in Eastern Europe. We’re writing to our leaders. We’re meeting with them. We’re doing Twitter storms. Basically, we’re trying to be everywhere where they make decisions so that they feel like wherever they go, we’re going to be there, too. That’s why we went to COP27 and the United Nations General Assembly in New York back in September. We’re trying to be in all of these places where they try to sell their image as leaders fighting Russia to show the world that there’s another story—the story of them being greedy people.

YESSENIA

I’ve been reading the headlines around countries like France and Poland, where you live, bringing back coal. I saw in Poland people are now even trying to illegally mine coal on their own land. This is all happening as scientists have made clear that we need to stop all oil and gas development in order to limit warming. This stuff is very alarming. How are you feeling about what we’re witnessing right now in Europe?

WIKTORIA

First of all, these people in Poland are not the ones to blame. In my hometown, there used to be places where you buy coal, and now it’s gone so quickly. Whatever they’re doing now, they’re doing it to protect their lives and their families. I get that. I would be doing the same thing.

 

The problem is that Polish people don’t have any heat in their homes. It should be a huge trigger for our leaders to finally realize that we really need to stop new fossil fuel investments. We really need to focus on a just transition so that people will have their energy but also life security.

YESSENIA

You’re talking about a living wage and jobs, right? Energy is a big deal, but there’s so much more that this is tied to.

(Photograph courtesy of Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak)

WIKTORIA

I’m coming from a country that is known for having lots of engineers and people who are very devoted to being part of a just transition on many different levels. There is only the political will that we’re lacking to become a strong country on the just transition. Poland is known for being the least ambitious when it comes to climate action in the European Union. This war has changed so much. It’s a crisis but also an opportunity for us to become the best and to make this decision about people and green jobs.

YESSENIA

Are there any countries in the European Union you think are doing it right? That are using this moment to invest in renewables or communities?

WIKTORIA

What Baltic countries have shown in the last months has been very inspirational for me. For example, Estonia is not only leading the transition, but they’re also very clear about cutting away from Russian fossil fuels. They were the first ones to say that publicly. Also, Poland’s example of how we welcomed Ukrainian people. That was a huge example of how, from one day to another, we can mobilize nations and societies to become more open, to become more friendly. It’s the same case with the just transition. We just need to make people understand that this can be good for them, as well.

YESSENIA

I really like that point around the mobilization that can come out of crisis and how when we really want to do something, we can. That’s an important reminder. I know that a big emphasis in your work is we need to stop fossil fuels. The Just Stop Oil campaign in the U.K. has been getting a lot of attention. Its message is quite simple. They want to stop oil. They’ve been throwing soup at paintings and paint at car dealerships. They’ve been disrupting. I’m curious: do you feel that this is what’s necessary to get people to wake up and to get government leaders to listen?

WIKTORIA

First of all, my personal goal is not only to just stop oil. It’s about stopping the fossil fuel madness that is creating so many catastrophes for many different people around the world. One of these catastrophes can be loss and damage to the Global South. It can also be a fossil fuel war that is happening right now in Ukraine or that has been happening in Syria for years.

 

There are many things beyond just stopping oil. 

 

I highly appreciate Just Stop Oil activists. It’s amazing what they’ve done and the attention that they captured. It’s really needed, but I’m not sure if that’s the climate justice movement. It is a climate movement, but I’m not sure if it’s the justice movement, which is not bad. We need many different movements and many different tactics. I’m fully standing in solidarity with them. It is important to have all of these tactics, but we can’t think that one tactic is better than the other ones.

YESSENIA

It sounds like right now the crisis demands an all-of-the-above approach to climate activism.

WIKTORIA

Yeah.

YESSENIA

It feels unclear to me how the situation will improve without the war ending. Until the war ends, it feels hard to see the situation in Ukraine and the energy crisis in Europe improving. What message do you want to send to your Ukrainian comrades who are feeling the brunt of this?

WIKTORIA

The war will end, and the war will end with Ukrainian victory. I’m from Poland, and Poland had been very often the target of both world wars, including the massacres that happened here in 1940s. Wherever we have a clear oppressor like Russia, they need to be defeated—and they will be defeated. The Ukrainian people are so brave.

 

It’s very clear that Ukraine will win—with Europe’s help or without it. It’s in our hands whether we’re going to pressure our leaders to do everything they can to end this war as soon as possible.

YESSENIA

Is there anything more you want to share about the situation and what’s at stake right now?

WIKTORIA

It’s all very gloomy and sad, but what gives me hope is that we have so many climate justice activists who really understand the root of different problems around the world. That’s exactly why this movement can be the peacemaking movement of our time. Peace can be real. And not a fake peace like we have right now with fossil fuels and capitalism and patriarchy. We can cut off the real roots of all of these problems and challenges we have. That’s the only answer. I really believe we can make this happen.

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