The invasion of Ukraine has put the world’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels front and center. We are all feeling it at the pump. Already high prices are up another 20% since the end of February in the US. Prices in Germany have reached the equivalent of nearly $9 a gallon. The EU already faced huge price increases in natural gas prior to the invasion and stayed away from an all-out embargo, citing “economic suicide”. But most people now know that continuing usage of that energy is sending billions of dollars back into Russia, ultimately funding the war. With horrifying atrocities piling up by the day, Germany recently announced progress in their attempt to phase out Russian oil and coal by the end of the year and natural gas by 2024. To quote a Bloomberg op-ed, “Europe Needs to Cut Energy Demand. Now.” For this to actually work, we all need to.
Fortunately, there is a roadmap from the International Energy Agency evaluating various conservation measures that can be enacted in a crisis. In reviewing their ideas, some of them are painful restrictions (alternate-day driving) or present an enforcement challenge (speed limit reduction). But several are steps that we should be considering anyway. Given Earth Month is upon us. I can’t think of a better time to announce big, bold energy ideas - even if positioned as temporary to help Ukraine. Here are a few of my favorites:
Make public transportation free
I have always dreamed of what would happen if we just stopped charging people to take shared transportation, assuming consistent, timely service was maintained. The IEA names this as one of the most effective strategies for saving oil in a hurry. Boston has a very popular free bus from the airport into the city and has recently made several other routes free, which increased ridership 23% and reduced delays. In addition to helping Ukraine, you offer the real possibility of removing transportation as a budget line item for many households. Those savings will help cover cost of living increases coming due to high fuel prices in other areas, especially food.
Work from Home 3 Days a Week
Pre-pandemic this would have been dismissed outright. We now know how to do this remote thing pretty well where it’s feasible. What I like about the IEA recommendation is how specific it is for companies already working in a hybrid model. It makes it easier to say, while there is a war going on in Ukraine, we are going to have people back in the office on these two days and home for these three days. That maximizes savings not just from commutes, but enables buildings to enter more of a shut-down mode on those three days, which also saves energy. Perhaps there is some district level coordination among large employers to balance out all the ancillary businesses impacted.
Car-free Sundays in Cities
I have long thought we needed a movement, like Meat-Free Monday, for people to voluntarily stop driving one day a week. At least in our household, Sunday would be the day as it would be feasible to bike, walk or take public transportation for most of what we do. The IEA also proposes that cities restrict car access on Sundays, the third most impactful step after reducing the speed limit and working from home. Anyone who has visited Venice knows how this works. Park outside the city, then walk, bike or take shared transport internally. If you combine free, regular transit with this idea, you could see a thriving, safe and healthier day that actually draws people downtown on Sundays. A family bike trip down Boylston street to the Prudential Center for lunch, without four lanes of notoriously terrifying Boston drivers to contend with, sounds amazing.
Whatever the route, Ukrainian mothers, fathers, infants and kids, teens, millennials, elders and pets need us to save energy to help save them. So turn out those lights with renewed zeal, combine errands, turn down (or up) that thermostat, turn off heat dry on your dishwasher, wash your clothes in cold water, take the train instead of a plane, and pull that bike out of winter storage. Besides a direct donation for humanitarian assistance, it’s arguably the most impactful thing you can do today to help Ukraine.