What the Ukraine War Means for the Future of Climate Change
Mr. Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor. At the end of February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, warning that the dangers of global warming are mounting so rapidly that adapting to them could soon become impossible. Delay, the U.N. secretary general of the findings, means death. The report came out just days after President Vladimir Putin of Russia began his assault on Ukraine, so the worlds attention was understandably trained elsewhere. But soon enough, commentators began pointing out the role that Russias fossil fuel trade has played in underwriting the invasion, thrusting climate change and its causes back into the spotlight. The world is paying Russia $700 million a day for oil and $400 million for natural gas, Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, The New Yorker this month. You are paying all this money to a murderous leader who is still killing people in my country. How is the war in Ukraine shaping the politics of fossil fuel dependency, and how might the conflict advance or hobble the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Heres what people are saying. One of the largest producers of fossil fuels in the world, Russia is highly dependent on its energy trade, with fossil fuels accounting for almost half of its exports and in 2020. Unlike the United States, the European Union has not banned imports of Russian oil and gas, and its no secret why: Europe relies on Russia for about and . (The United States, by contrast, and .) Germany is especially dependent on Russian fossil fuels; it is Europes largest energy consumer and Russias most important customer. That dependence deepened after the , in 2011, when Angela Merkel committed to closing all of Germanys nuclear plants. (The was than the one that caused the 2011 disaster and does not appear to have damaged the countrys nuclear plants, even as it left two million homes without power.) Russia now supplies more than half of Germanys gas, half of its coal and about a third of its oil, to Bloomberg. . As Alec MacGillis in The New Yorker, Germany actually to rely on Russia because it saw the economic links created by fuel imports physical links, in the form of pipelines through Eastern Europe and under the Baltic Sea as integral to keeping peace and integrating Russia into the rest of Europe. In the view of Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraines leading climate scientist, who helped finalize the I.P.C.C. report from Kyiv as Russia invaded, the war on her home country is inextricably linked to climate change. Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to, she The Guardian. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels; they dont make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. Its clear we cannot continue to live this way. It will destroy our civilization. In the immediate term, Germany and others could take measures to reduce their consumption of Russian fossil fuels, as the Times columnist Paul Krugman . Eliminating their use, though, would incur steep costs to the German people equivalent to those of a moderate recession. Its not so simple to just say, OK, overnight, now were going to suddenly switch and no longer going to be dependent on natural gas from Russia, or fossil fuels in general, Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the U.N. Foundation, Yahoo News. Right now, youre seeing that vulnerability exposed and there not being easy, short-term fixes to that problem. Germany, for its part, just for investment in renewable energy production between now and 2026. Many of the strategies to lower dependency on Russia are the same as the policy measures you want to take to lower emissions, Thijs Van de Graaf, a professor of international politics at Ghent University, The Financial Times. At the moments where we have these crises, the [energy] transition can be supercharged. That would be an extremely ambitious timetable in peacetime, but if the continent shifts to a war footing as it must, with a savage conflict playing out on its eastern borders then it should be achievable, The Boston Globe editorial board . Key to the transition, the board adds, is increasing American production of minerals and metals required for renewable energy technology. Russia is a of those materials, so the West needs to ensure it doesnt become just as reliant on Russia for clean energy production as it is now for fossil fuels. In The Times, Simone Tagliapietra, Georg Zachmann and Morgan Bazilian call for a pact between North America and Europe to help the continent reduce its short-term dependence on Russian fuel. Such a pact could also build an important foundation for cooperation in clean energy innovation and deployment and reducing energy demand in the longer term which would significantly enhance Europes energy security, they . As energy prices soar, some fossil fuel executives have seized on the crisis as a business opportunity. At , an annual energy conference that was held in Houston this month, climate change was supposed to feature heavily. Instead, Kate Aronoff for The New Republic, the focus shifted to increased domestic fossil fuel production. An industry thats spent the last two years and billions of dollars trying to convince the world that it can decarbonize hydrocarbons is much too savvy to brag about all the money to be made off a humanitarian catastrophe, she writes. Accordingly, the message fossil fuel execs pivoted to, as Russian troops crept further into Ukraine, is that theyre , standing ready to meet the worlds energy needs and build American energy independence. As politicians divert their attention to the invasion, investment in climate mitigation and adaptation could find themselves on the back burner, usurped by the perceived need for greater military spending. And militaries are highly energy-intensive: to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the Pentagons greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 exceeded those of entire industrialized countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Portugal. If war wins, climate action loses, Andrew Sheng for The Jakarta Post. Increased defense expenditure will accelerate energy and nonrenewable material consumption as well as push up emissions, thus diverting scarce resources away from climate action. While the Biden administration to transition the country to net-zero emissions by 2050, his climate legislation has been held up for months by members of his own party, and the crisis in Ukraine has done nothing to move that particular needle. Even Biden himself has been wary of connecting the war in Ukraine to climate change. In his State of the Union address, he made glancing mention of the issue, but did not articulate the long-term opportunity for the U.S. to lead the world in breaking free of the geopolitical nightmare that is oil dependency, Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. One explanation for the reticence: During a midterm election year, the administration is worried Even in , the issue is being treated as a political liability. As my colleague Ezra Klein on a recent episode of his podcast with the economic historian Adam Tooze, the goal of global decarbonization can be met only if countries work together. But the hotter conflict gets, the harder cooperation gets, he noted. It bodes ill, then, that Russia, as one of the worlds largest producers of fossil fuels, is vital to the international effort to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, and has so far shown a commitment to that, according to Climate Action Tracker. If climate diplomacy was halting during peacetime, what chance is there for it now? Tooze, however, was more optimistic than Klein about the prospects for decarbonization in an era of renewed great-power competition. International cooperation is important, but if you take the climate problem as seriously as I think we have to at this point and as seriously as I think big parts of the leadership in China increasingly are, its a national interest issue, he said. You do it because youve got to do it. An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a writer for The New Yorker. He is Alec MacGillis, not McGillis. How we handle corrections Spencer Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor in the Opinion section.