Ukraine War Impedes Climate Progress
On Feb. 24, just days before the IPCC released its latest grim report on the climate emergency, Russia invaded Ukraine. Given its role as a top energy producer, the invasion immediately threw world markets into turmoil. A barrel of crude oil jumped from $90 to $120, leading to price hikes at the gas pump all over the world. Oil has since declined a bit, but the markets are still very unsettled. There are now calls in the US and Europe for a slowdown in meeting carbon emission goals and for an increase in natural gas and oil production to make up for the expected permanent reduction in Russian supplies. Some are even arguing for new coal production.
World climate emergency leaders have condemned these efforts. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned the major economies not to abandon the Glasgow COP26 promises: “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.” Mark Carney, UN Climate Envoy and former Bank of England chair, said much the same thing, arguing that any slowdown in emissions reductions would require even more radical steps later, and at much greater cost. He called for more renewable energy investment, in order to free Europe from its extreme dependency on Russian energy supplies: “Clean energy systems are more affordable, efficient, resilient and reliable. No one owns the wind or the sun and hydrogen is literally everywhere.”
For its part, the European Union has just announced a $316 billion plan to completely eliminate their dependence on Russian energy by 2030. (Russia currently supplies it with 40% of its gas and 27% of its oil.) It calls for greater reductions in energy consumption, increased development of renewable energy, and replacement of Russian with American natural gas. The EU had already decided to ban Russian coal by August, and hopes to agree on an oil ban shortly. It has also promised to reduce Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of this year. Still, big questions remain.
What worries activists are the EU’s plans to substitute American gas for Russian supplies. Top US bankers are always eager to invest in fossil fuels, disregarding any catastrophic environmental consequences down the line, and they smell an opportunity. They’re calling for a “new Marshall Plan” for energy, with expanded gas production at the top of the list. The EU itself has announced plans to build new liquified natural gas terminals to handle more American shipments, with Germany recently passing legislation to speed up LNG construction. This has alarmed climate activists and researchers, such as Colin Rees at Oil Change International, who calls it “a death sentence for the planet,” as the terminals would likely operate for decades. Rees and others insist that they’re unnecessary and that renewables can make up the shortage on their own. There’s also recent new evidence that methane leaks from gas drilling are six times worse than the latest EPA estimates, a point of great concern, given methane’s extreme short-term potency as a greenhouse gas.
The picture is unclear, however, as the new EU plan calls for only 4% of its plan to go toward new fossil fuel infrastructure. All the rest will be given to speeding up and expanding its transition to clean energy. So perhaps Rees and others are overstating the threat. US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry defends an increase in US gas production in the short-term, in order to help Europe wean itself from Russian energy. He does warn against expanding LNG infrastructure but only if it’s not abated (that is, fitted with technology to capture and store carbon, a highly controversial process). We will have to wait and see how the EU proceeds. As for the US, early signs are that the Biden administration is caving in to the “Marshall Plan” talk, given the high price of gas.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is dividing the world more than ever into two camps, with democracies on one side and authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, China, and Iran, on the other. At first glance, it’s very hard to see how international cooperation on climate can be maintained, let alone expanded, given this stark new reality. But the division is not clear cut—how does India fit in, for example?—and global interdependence may yet force the two sides to work together. It’s one planet and one atmosphere, after all.
In any case, the degree of future global heating—the fate of the planet—will be determined more by China and India than the Western countries. Those two nations account for over 36% of world greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 24% for the US, EU, and UK), and their percentages are increasing, as they have hundreds of millions of people eager to live more energy-intensive, Western-style lives. Kerry acknowledges that neither has yet stepped up and improved their emission reduction goals in 2022, but he's hopeful that they'll still do so, and that the US and China can still work together on the climate emergency. “We’re prepared to help China or provide whatever China is willing to accept in terms of assistance,” he said recently, and he cites India’s plans for a large expansion of renewables. After a year and a half of hopes turning to disappointment, we’re wise to be suspicious of Kerry’s optimism. And to be fair, he acknowledges the great peril, admitting that it was “now or never” if the world is going to avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis. “The IPCC said to us a few weeks ago ‘we’re behind, it’s not getting better at the pace it should be, emissions have gone up, but you still have time to do this’…we have to take advantage of the fact that the science tells us we still have time, but we have to greatly accelerate what we’re doing. We have to speed up very significantly.”
by David Beaulieu
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