“We will not surrender in Ukraine and we hope the world will not surrender in building a climate-resilient future”, said the environmental scientist, Svitlana Krakovska, at the end of an IPCC meeting last week.
The Ukrainian was talking online ahead of the latest terrifying IPCC report, released yesterday amidst the fog of conflict in Ukraine. She did so despite the fact that her delegation had to withdraw from negotiations as they sheltered from the conflict. Her speech was a reminder that we can’t afford to be distracted from the fight against climate change.
The IPCC report’s message was that it’s worse than was previously thought. The devastation is already happening – 3.5 billion people are already highly vulnerable to climate impacts. In that context, one of the questions is whether the war in Ukraine sinks the net-zero dream or, as one scientist put it last week, puts “zero-carbon rocket boosters” behind it?
Some are seeing the threat to energy security as further cause to ramp up renewables in the UK. Others like Offshore Energies UK have used it as argument for investment in “new fields and wells”. It’s worth bearing in mind the International Energy Agency’s warning, last year, that there should be “no new oil, gas or coal development if the world is to reach net zero by 2050.”
Particularly troubling is the the argument, already put in the UK by certain Tories, that high gas prices merit a peeling back on the “net-zero agenda”.
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Households, we know, are already struggling. It feels that pressures and fears could easily shutter down into a politics of the moment, rather than one that looks to the future of the planet.
The good news is that stocks in renewables are surging. But for how long?
The invasion of Ukraine may not be about fossil fuels but it is fought with gas as a weapon, and alters our relationship to energy security. For the UK, this isn’t a matter of threatening our gas supply (only 4 per cent of our supply comes from Russia, compared to 40% across Europe) but threatens higher gas prices. The fear is that Putin will choose to further weaponise gas resources and cut off the supply to Europe, leaving countries like Germany, Italy and Poland, which receive significant quantities of gas from Russia, vulnerable and sending gas prices rocketing still further.
While this may sound worrying, it’s an energy supply attack that has already happened. As the German energy minister noted last week, the withholding of gas supplies is an element of Putin’s strategy long under way – Gazprom had been building towards the current moment by “systematically holding back gas deliveries”. On Twitter, energy expert Thijs van de Graaf noted: “If one talks about a Russian gas weapon, it has arguably already been deployed”.
What does this attack mean for net zero? The answer is that while we can see great reason for optimism – European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen saying “we must invest in renewables” – there are also significant causes for concern. The worry is that countries may focus on energy security at the expense of decarbonisation.
What, for instance, will happen in Germany, which has been trying to increase its wind and solar power as it closes down coal-fired plants and nuclear facilities, and which saw Russian gas as part of that transition? Having pulled the plug on the planned Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2, how will it navigate that? With a slide back to coal?
The good news is that German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck noted last week that Russia’s invasion was strengthening the case for renewables as an aspect of energy independence. “People,” he said, “see that it is not only a climate-related issue, but a safety or security-related issue right now.”
But Germany is not the only country with such problems. Poland might reconsider its transition out of coal.
There is also the high chance that an isolated Russia, focused on war, will be even less likely to engage in international efforts to mitigate climate change.
And above all there is the problem that yet again the crisis we are gripped by is not climate but something else – our eye is on Ukraine, Putin, whisperings of a third world war in Europe. It’s as if we can only cope with one fear at a time.
But the IPCC report is a reminder that we cannot afford to do that. War brings a terrible threat to human life but so does climate change. The message to us all should be clear. The invasion of Ukraine should not become a case for falling back on fossil fuels but, instead, for upping the speed of transition to renewables. The net-zero dream is still there, brought more brightly and sharply into focus.