What does Russia’s war mean for global climate goals?

A group of Ukrainian women demonstrate to call for further action against Russia near the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium.

Thierry Monasse | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — Reflecting on energy markets just over a month after Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the top Saudi energy official said: “Look at what’s happening today, which talks about the climate change now?”

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman’s comments at the end of March were in fact a replay of his speech to participants at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November last year, when he claimed the world could reduce greenhouse gas emissions without giving up hydrocarbons.

Summarizing his views on energy security and the climate crisis, Abdulaziz told CNBC that the world’s top oil exporter would not hesitate to produce fossil fuels. “We are pro oil and gas production, and – hallelujah – pro coal use.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is about to enter its fourth month, amplifying concerns about what the conflict means for food, energy and global climate goals.

The G-7 warned that Russia’s invasion had resulted in “one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history”, threatening the world’s most vulnerable people.

From my side, since I am still here in Ukraine and I see everything here from the very beginning, I would say that our first security is the security of life.

Svitlana Krakovska


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine is likely to have major implications for global heating targets, especially as many countries shift to coal or fuels. imports of liquefied natural gas as an alternative source to Russian energy.

António Guterres described this short-sighted fossil fuel rush as “madness”, before warning that “humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction”.

Six months from the end of COP26, where negotiators left the UK with a sense of incremental progress, the global energy picture has changed dramatically.

In short, the Russian invasion has placed a planned energy transition at a crossroads. The result facing policy makers is that moving away from fossil fuels is vital to avoiding a cataclysmic climate scenario.

The UN chief said that instead of countries “stifling” the decarbonisation of the global economy following Russia’s invasion, “now is the time to put the pedal to the metal towards a future renewable energy”.

Energy security vs energy transition

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put the issue of energy security back at the top of the political agenda. Indeed, one of the most pressing challenges facing European leaders today is how to break their dependence on Russian energy while accelerating the fight against the climate crisis.

However, this challenge is complicated by the fact that many European countries rely heavily on Russian oil and gas.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on the EU to stop funding the Russian invasion by imposing an immediate ban on imports of Russian oil and gas.

Attila Kisbenedek | AFP | Getty Images

Speaking to CNBC from Kyiv, Ukraine’s top climatologist, Svitlana Krakovska, made it clear that survival — not energy security — had been the top priority for people in the country.

“From my side, since I am still here in Ukraine and I see everything here from the very beginning, I would say that our first security is the security of life,” Krakovska said. She previously told CNBC that the main driver of the climate emergency and the root cause of the war in Russia both stem from humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“The longer we continue our dependence on these fossil fuels, the more we postpone [climate] action, the less secure we are,” Krakovska said.

The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the main driver of the climate crisis and researchers have repeatedly pointed out that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will soon be out of reach. without immediate and deep emission reductions in all sectors.

This temperature limit is recognized as a crucial global goal because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely. Tipping points are thresholds at which small changes can lead to dramatic changes in Earth’s entire life support system.

We can respond much faster on the demand side than on the supply side – and we don’t hear enough about it.

Michel Lazare

Director of the American office of the Stockholm Environment Institute

The world’s governments agreed in the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to continue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. For the latter, the International Energy Agency has warned that no new oil and gas projects are possible.

Krakovska, who heads the Applied Climatology Laboratory at the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute, said while it was currently difficult to assess the climate impact of the Russian invasion, there were already clear examples of environmental destruction. .

For example, Krakovska said she watched with some concern the vast expanses of forest fires that burned unchecked in Siberia, noting that the Russian military units that usually fought such fires had been moved to the Ukrainian front line. .

Wildfires have been left unchecked in Siberia, Russia. This aerial photo was taken on July 27, 2021 showing smoke rising from a wildfire.

Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP | Getty Images

Wildfires in Siberia last month were found to be more than double the size compared to the same period in 2021, environmental group Greenpeace told CNBC, citing satellite data. In what is becoming an annual climate-breaking event, burning trees in Siberia release extreme carbon pollution while melting methane-rich permafrost.

“This war actually has so many devastating consequences and it only exacerbates the climate crisis,” Krakovska said. She reiterated the Ukrainian government’s call on the EU to stop funding the Russian invasion by imposing an immediate ban on imports of Russian oil and gas.

Why don’t we talk about demand?

For some, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis should be seen as a harbinger of how countries view their oil consumption.

“We can respond much faster on the demand side than on the supply side – and we don’t hear enough about it,” said Michael Lazarus, director of the US office of the Stockholm Environment Institute, a research firm in non-profit. told CNBC via video call.

At the end of March, the IEA published a 10-point plan to reduce demand for oil, recommending policies such as reducing speed limits on motorways by at least 10 kilometers per hour, working from home until three days a week when possible and without a car. Sunday for cities.

The energy agency said imposing such measures would help reduce price pain felt by global consumers, mitigate economic damage, reduce Russia’s hydrocarbon revenues and shift demand. oil on a more sustainable path.

“Even though some efforts are behaviorally or culturally challenging, whether it’s changing speed limits or changing the temperature of our homes, these things can happen and what we’ve seen is the support movement. of the public,” Lazarus said.

“People want to do something. People want to contribute, and it reduces costs and household vulnerabilities to invest in energy efficiency and conservation and it helps free up resources for the rest of the world to deal with. right now,” Lazarus said. “This really is a time for dramatic efforts on the demand side.”

What about the cost?

In early April, the world’s leading climate scientists warned that the fight to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius had reached “now or never” territory.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reaffirmed that to keep global temperature rise below this key threshold, emissions of warming gases must be halved by the end of the decade.

“We have a contradiction here,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former president of the European Commission, at a May 10 event titled: “The conflict in Ukraine and the clean energy transition in Europe”.

“While in the medium to long term, everyone agrees that the less we depend on fossil fuels, the better. The fact is that it will be expensive – and so I think there is a risk I would even say that there is a risk of having the climate agenda as collateral damage of this war in Ukraine,” Barroso said.

The IPCC is unequivocal on the so-called “cost” of the global struggle to ensure a viable future: it is not as expensive as one might think.

“Without accounting for the economic benefits of reduced adaptation costs or avoided climate impacts, global gross domestic product (GDP) would be only a few percentage points lower in 2050 if we take the necessary steps to limit global warming. 2°C (3.6°F) or less, compared to maintaining current policies,” IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Priyadarshi Shukla said April 4.

– CNBC’s Lucy Handley contributed to this report.

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