Myths, Partial truths, and Some Fresh Perspectives
War is never good for the environment, but the implications are even more dangerous this time
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing death and destruction it has caused are a great human tragedy and history changing. Yet the longer-term implications for climate change may be equally grave.
There are multiple climate consequences of the invasion:
· The need to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas is leading some countries to shift back to coal, most notably Germany where three nuclear power plants are scheduled to close by the end of this year. The consequence will be at least a short-term increase in carbon emissions. Other parts of the world, particularly Asia, may find coal the best short-term option as gas supply shifts to Europe.
· Russia is among the larger emitters of greenhouse gases and is known to be a particularly significant source of methane emissions from its pipelines. Russia was not a signatory to the Methane Pledge, an agreement to reduce methane emissions 30 percent by 2030 and the war makes it even less likely the government will focus on climate policy.
· The political response to rising gas prices in the U.S., at least partly due to a de facto ban on Russian oil in global markets, has been pressure to promote more drilling on public lands, allow greater use of ethanol (even more carbon-intensive than gasoline), and weaken environmental regulation.
· One response to the dependence of Germany and other European nations on Russian gas has been to promote more US exports in the form of LNG, a process that requires supercooling for liquefaction and transport in specialized ships sailing and to and from appropriately equipped ports. These processes require considerable energy and have some unavoidable leakage and thus result in a significant net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The large investments for infrastructure and ships also take years to pay off, making it unlikely shipments will cease for many years to come.
· Russia is a major supplier of metals and minerals critical for batteries and other products central to the transition to clean energy. Finding other sources is possible but will take time and investment.
· Global cooperation is a critical requirement for effective climate action. The division of the world based on support and opposition to Putin has made the prospects for such cooperation far more difficult.
· The enormous, growing financial commitments to support Ukraine compete with the investments required to reduce GHG emissions and fulfill promises of financial aid critical for developing countries to adapt to climate change, which in turn undermines the level of support for the international climate system.
· Climate change is already a source of food insecurity in parts of the world, for example a record breaking heat wave in India and droughts and floods reducing grain harvests in Africa and China. Eliminating grain and fertilizer exports from Russia, and wheat exports from Ukraine, is greatly exacerbating food prices and shortages for millions — already spiking last year.
In the longer term, as many energy experts and climate advocates have noted, there is the prospect of accelerating investment in a combination of energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy driven by the realization that Russia is no longer a reliable or trustworthy supplier of oil and gas. Some experts see carbon capture technology as the answer, but again whether it can be proven to work and scaled fast enough to make a difference is debatable. The problem is that we are running out of time to avoid a climate catastrophe.
The greatest risk of delay is the prospect of exceeding tipping points, temperature and climate triggers for potentially irreversible and catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate system. (I discussed this in more detail in a previous blog.) Examples include the melting of permafrost resulting in the release of large amounts of methane and CO2 and deforestation of the Amazon causing a major carbon sink to become a large source of emissions. Each of these events could have dramatic consequences; to take just one example, a mass methane release could put us on an irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters. Even relatively rapid reductions in carbon emissions five or 10 years from now will only very gradually slow the rate of warming (also discussed in my previous blog).
Ideally, as the International Energy Agency has recently proposed, countries should aggressively and as quickly as possible promote energy conservation measures, a strategy with economic as well as environmental benefits. Unfortunately, even simple behavioral changes like driving at slower speeds and turning down thermostats are rarely quickly accomplished on a large scale. It therefore appears there is no cost-free alternative to accepting some short-term increase in fossil fuel use in return for polices to accelerate clean energy over the longer-term. As energy experts Jason Bordoff and Megan O’Sullivan have recently written, “all sides [will need] to accept actions they regard as anathema” in order to foster outcomes preferable to far worse alternatives. Given the grave danger this represents to the future of the planet, doing both is imperative.
Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)