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How Cars Can Help Us Undermine Putin’s Power

While there are just a few things people can do to ameliorate the conflict, cars are one of our most powerful weapons against Putin’s war machine.

As the gruesome events are unfolding in Ukraine, my heart goes out to all the victims of Putin’s assault. As a half-Russian, I also feel for those Russians who are vehemently opposing the war and bearing great mental hardship for the cruel actions of the Putin regime.

Having lived in a western European country for a long time I’m now, like many, asking myself what can I do to help? Some have taken up arms and joined the Ukrainian resistance. More are responding to the humanitarian crisis by opening their doors to millions of refugees.

But there is something that we can all do to weaken Putin’s very ability to wage war: cut the quarter of a billion dollars that we send him daily for oil (at least twice the amount we send for gas even at current prices). And the weapon that most of us have to weaken Putin’s oil profits is the car.

Our car power

Cars consume around a third of all oil imports we get from Russia, or 300 million barrels. The petrol and diesel cars that take us to work, shops and holidays consumed a hefty $87 billion worth of oil in 2021, $21 billion of which went directly to Russia. Imagine how many fighter jets can be bought with that.

So, to undermine Putin’s war, Europeans can decrease unnecessary car use to reduce oil demand right now. This is primarily about efficiency, not taking away a car from those on low incomes who cannot otherwise get to work. Research shows that only 5% of Germans (rising to 9% of French) have no choice but to rely on cars despite being poor. Governments should carefully target their social policies here.

But the majority of kilometres driven in Europe are by richer drivers — often in SUVs. Getting to a supermarket that’s 15 minutes away on foot in a gas guzzler that consumes 8 litres of oil per 100km is hardly necessary. Additional solutions like homeworking, speed limits and increasing the efficiency of freight operations (fuller trucks and more optimal routes) can all help. They are also the best way to hedge against the high and rising oil prices.

Structural solutions

Beyond reducing inefficient vehicle use, there are structural solutions available for Europe to reduce its oil demand for good. And not only oil from Russia, but from any undemocratic or unstable regime — be it Saudi Arabia or Iran. One such solution is electric cars, which consume zero fuel and release zero pollution or carbon emissions. But governments that rely most on Russia’s oil imports and have a strong car industry, notably Germany, refuse to even talk about it.

Accelerating the switch to battery electric cars is possible. Europeans already bought over a million of them in 2021, which was one of every 10 cars sold. Corporate fleets and company cars — which account for most car sales and the majority of kilometres driven — can shift to electric already today. Belgium plans to give tax breaks for electric company cars only by 2026 — all combustion engines will be excluded. Why can’t Germany, France and many others follow suit and stop subsidising oil demand?

But the biggest problem lies in the outdated EU cars policy — the car CO2 standards — that governs what cars are produced and sold in Europe. This is currently up for review but the Commission proposed to increase ambition only from 2030. That means the current electrification boom will stagnate for a decade.

$11 billion off Putin’s profits

Just as Putin, funded by our oil money, is assaulting Ukraine, 27 EU governments and the European Parliament are deciding how fast Europe’s automotive industry will electrify. In other words, how fast we will move away from oil is being decided now.

If we stick with the Commission’s proposals, we will still be importing 275 million barrels of oil from Russia in the late 2020s, writing Putin a cheque for $34 billion every year[1]. If we go with the targets the Parliament’s lead MEP Jan Huitema has proposed, the cumulative payout we give for Russian oil between now and 2030 will be reduced by $11 billion.

If we accelerate beyond that, requiring half of all new car sales to be electric by 2025 as dozens of NGOs EU-wide are now demanding, the cumulative savings jump to more than $4.5 billion by 2025 already, shaving off 37 million barrels of oil demand from Russia. Count how many fighter jets that is!

Setting higher car CO2 goals in 2025 and beyond is what Europe can do. Not just to stop subsidising Putin, but to ensure the energy independence of Europe, from Germany to Eastern Europe and up the Baltics whose security is most at risk. Electric cars are our secret weapon against this war, so let’s stock up.

By Julia Poliscanova, Senior Director, Vehicles and E-Mobility

This article was previously published by Transport & Environment and Automotive News Europe

[1] Based on $125 per barrel, with future volatility hard to predict.

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