The climate emergency was pushed to the back burner in international relations and oil prices hit US$105 per barrel this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin capped weeks of escalating tensions by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“The perils of a warming planet are no less calamitous now, but the debate about the critically important transition to renewable energy has taken a back seat to [short-term] energy security as Russia—Europe’s largest energy supplier—threatens to start a major confrontation with the West,” the New York Times wrote Wednesday.
“The renewed emphasis on energy independence and national security may encourage policy-makers to backslide on efforts to decrease the use of fossil fuels that pump deadly greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” added global economics correspondent Patricia Cohen. “Already, skyrocketing prices have spurred additional production and consumption of fuels that contribute to global warming.,” with the European Union importing 56% more coal in January than it did in the same month last year.
On Wednesday, Germany shut down certification of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, Clean Energy Wire writes. Yesterday, after Russia began what Ukraine described as a “full-scale invasion”, oil prices pushed above US$105 per barrel for the first time since 2014, and natural gas prices in Europe rose 41%, Bloomberg reports. Both sides were presumably fighting in battle tanks that measured their fuel performance in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon.
But even before the actual invasion, “gas prices became very high, and all of a sudden security of supply and price became the main subject of public debate,” Lucia van Geuns, a strategic energy advisor at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies, told Cohen.
“Governments will want to deprioritize renewables and sustainables, which would be exactly the wrong response,” added Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford.
“I don’t think the threat from Russia is outweighing the threat of climate change, and I don’t see coal mines opening up across Europe,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at London, UK-based Chatham House. But “this debate is changing”, he added, as European leaders face up to a dependency on gas supplies from Russia that has shown the need for energy independence and diversification, with less concern for whether the new sources of supply are clean, efficient, and decarbonized.
Last week, United States climate envoy John Kerry told the annual Munich Security Conference that geopolitical tensions like the Russia-Ukraine war could “hamper international efforts to curb global warming”, with high energy prices making consumers and governments “wary of taking tough measures needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” The Associated Press reported.
“It’s not going to be positive because it’s going to distract rather enormously,” Kerry said. “The prices of fuel will inevitably rise even more,” and those higher costs “will push people towards the path of least resistance, which we are already too much locked into, and that will bring about the path of greatest destruction.”
Not that those people necessarily want to go there. A poll commissioned by the Munich conference and released last week found that the majority of respondents in some of the world’s richest countries saw climate change as a bigger threat than war, Bloomberg wrote, identifying global warming, habitat destruction, and extreme weather as the top three risks.
“People polled are now even more risk-aware,” the polling report said. “People around the world are growing increasingly concerned about the impacts of climate change.”
Days later, Kerry was in Cairo, joining the Egyptian government to launch preparations for this year’s United Nations climate summit, COP 27, in Sharm el-Sheikh. He called the climate emergency an “international threat for all of us,” adding that the crisis in Ukraine “will not change the reality of what is happening every day with respect to our climate.”
But so far, the EU is more focused on solving its immediate problem, rather than getting at the underlying cause—a dependency that is fuelling the climate emergency and the continent’s geopolitical. crisis.
“As Europe’s gas supply crisis stretches into its fifth month, a chorus of politicians and pundits is calling for the European Union to diversify its gas supplies to protect against future disruptions,” but “we’ve heard those calls for nearly two decade,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis wrote earlier this month.
“Put simply, the EU’s longstanding strategy focused on diversifying the routes by which gas is shipped to the continent, rather than diversifying the ultimate suppliers of that gas. That left the entire continent vulnerable to one fundamental threat: politically motivated manipulation by the continent’s main gas supplier,” with the proportion of EU gas imports coming from Russia rising from 38% in 2005 to 44% in 2020.
“Moving forward,” added IEEFA analysts Anna Maria Jaller-Makarewicz and Clark Williams-Derry, “Europe’s energy conversation must move beyond mere diversification of gas supplies. It should focus on diversification of all energy sources, with increased focus on the sources, such as the sun and wind, that don’t rely on outside suppliers and that are completely immune from politics.”
Meanwhile, Russian military forces are streaming into Ukrainian territory, with officials warning of a possible “ecological disaster” after invading forces captured the exclusion zone around the abandoned Chornobyl nuclear plant near the country’s border with Belarus, the Washington Post reported Thursday. If artillery fire hits the plant facilities, said Interior Ministry advisor Anton Gerashchenko, “radioactive nuclear dust can be spread over the territory of Ukraine, Belarus” and EU countries.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said his organization was “following the situation in Ukraine with grave concern” and “appealing for maximum restraint to avoid any action that may put the country’s nuclear facilities at risk.”
He added: “It is of vital importance that the safe and secure operations of the nuclear facilities in that zone should not be affected or disrupted in any way.”
The Post has a short recap of the explosions and fires 36 years ago that made Chornobyl the world’s worst nuclear disaster to date, and the severe health and safety impacts that resulted. “The Chornobyl zone, one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world, has remained closed since 1986, although a small number of people still live in the area—mostly elderly Ukrainians who refused to evacuate or who quietly resettled there later,” the news story states.
Veteran New York Times correspondent Thomas L. Friedman is one of several analysts pointing out that, while this is a war of Vladimir Putin’s making, major parts of the crisis trace back to the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“The only place to be for understanding this war is inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head,” Friedman writes. “But, with all of that said, America is not entirely innocent of fueling his fires.”