The most visible and tragic consequences of Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine are the lost lives, destroyed infrastructure and ever rising number of refugees fleeing their homeland. Beyond these obvious harms, the war is causing repercussions for European security, the global economy and the fight against runaway climate change. What may be different in comparison to previous conflicts is how intimately connected these issues are.
Decisions made by global leaders could force a more speedy end to both the war and sky-high carbon emissions. Different decisions could extend the war and make the fight for climate security far harder. European security, linked as it is to the pace and extent of climate breakdown and the outcome of the war in Ukraine, hangs in the balance.
The latest IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) report states we must halve carbon emissions by 2030. The authors do not just set an arbitrary goal; they set out clearly why 2030 is such an important date and map a series of achievable steps to get there.
We cannot halve emissions without decarbonising huge swathes of the global economy, including most transportation, domestic and industrial heat production, agriculture and land management.
The time for caveats and pretending that gas is justifiable as a transition fuel must end. By 2030 the bulk of our energy must come from renewable sources – solar, wind, geothermal and tidal – supplemented by nuclear where required.
We have a long way to go. In 2019, only 16 percent of global energy came from low-carbon sources, 11.5 percent from renewables and 4.5 percent from nuclear. Nowhere near enough.
Pledges made at COP26 last November would, if fully implemented, keep temperature rises below 2C, but even that would not take us to safety. Any rise more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels risks unacceptable tipping points which would pitch the climate into runaway climate change regardless of later energy choices by humanity. The time to act is now, and we are still not doing enough.
The impact of war in Ukraine
Given the need for urgent action on emissions, choices made by national leaders in response to the war in Ukraine are crucial.
The worst-case scenario is that the war is simply a distraction, preventing nations from implementing pledges made at COP26. But there is the potential for a much better outcome, one that meets the immediate need to end the war while simultaneously turbocharging the world’s shift to carbon-free energy.
Yet world leaders, and Europe’s leaders in particular, face difficult choices. They argue rightly that they have come to Ukraine’s aid in unprecedented fashion; the scale of sanctions imposed on Russia’s economy and its oligarchs goes far beyond any pre-war predictions.
They have sent weapons to arm Ukraine’s armies, money to aid its government, and nations across Europe – with the notable exception of the UK – have opened their doors to refugees for at least three years, a welcome that comes with access to education, work and housing.
But it is not enough. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, repeatedly asks for higher capacity weapons from the West, only to be rebuffed.
And while the West imposes ever-greater sanctions week by week, the entire endeavour is undercut by its continued need, particularly in Europe, for Russian fossil fuels.
Dependence on Russian fossil fuels
Many European nations buy huge quantities of Russian oil and gas; Germany for example gets around a third of its gas from them. Without that gas, lights would go off across Germany, factories would shut down, jobs would be lost.
Since the war began, the EU as a whole has spent over €35bn on Russian oil and gas. It is not just Europe; cargoes of Russian Sokol crude from the Far East have sold out for next month, and several Chinese firms used local currency to buy Russian coal in March. Gas flows from Russia to Europe have, if anything, increased since the invasion began.
None of these sales are subject to sanctions. Bloomberg Economics expects Russia will earn about $320bn from energy exports this year, up by more than a third from 2021. The ruble has already rebounded to its pre-war price against the dollar.
Western nations have largely ended imports of Russian oil and coal, but these were already low compared to imports of Russian gas. Germany and other European nations have said they will end gas imports ‘as soon as possible’, in part by shifting supply to liquefied natural gas imported from the US. New infrastructure to enable transport is already planned in both the US and Europe.
War and climate change
Such announcements are clearly incompatible with any hope of halving emissions by 2030. The world needs to abandon fossil fuel infrastructure, not build more of it. Instead all nations, Western and beyond, need to turn their entire energy budget and intent to the building of renewable and nuclear energy production.
The end of the war in Ukraine and our hopes of preventing climate chaos have as a result become intricately linked. Should the West, and Europe in particular, find the courage and the energy resources to allow it to turn off Russian gas in days or weeks, and to fulfil Zelenskyy’s appeals for heavier weapons, Vladimir Putin could be forced to take negotiations seriously.
Putin has few other options. He has announced an infrastructure building programme to enable him to export more fossil fuels to China and other nations in the east, but building this infrastructure will take time – at least a year, experts believe.
No one doubts that is hard to do at the speed required. If Germany, Italy and other highly exposed nations do end Russian imports overnight in an attempt to pressure Putin, they will suffer severe economic consequences. Their economies will be poorer, their people less wealthy and possibly literally left in the cold this coming winter.
But Europe and the world have the opportunity to bring forward every piece of renewable infrastructure planned, designed or dreamt of. We could instigate a significant boost towards halving emissions, and beyond to net zero.
War has changed the game
Even in today’s inaction and the ongoing conflict, some see hope for meaningful change. The war has changed the game, says Bloomberg Green’s Gernot Wagner.
“Something is different … The longer this war of choice waged by Vladimir Putin has dragged on, the clearer it has become that the current situation is untenable. Nobody questions if things must change, just when and how. The differences in energy and outlook seem palpable to me.”
Political leaders, he says, are now accepting that fossil fuel dependency does not just risk the climate in the medium and long term, it risks their borders and national security in the here and now.
Nonetheless, Wagner admits that action is still “too slow”. Getting the world off fossil fuels “must be a much bigger priority than it is now”.
The people of Ukraine need the West to act now, both on its commitment to send needed arms and its commitment to sanctions on Russia, which to be effective must include ending gas imports.
The fight against climate change needs the West and the world to stop using not just Russian but all fossil fuels, and to do it soon. That means an unprecedented investment programme in low-carbon fuel sources.
Putin’s war has changed the game by linking these priorities in ways he may not have expected. Ending the West’s dependence on Russian fossil fuel could spur much-needed climate action that would otherwise not have been possible while bringing a swifter end to Ukraine’s suffering. Our leaders need to act, and they need to do it now.