The Energy Transition has been Thrown off by the Conflict in Ukraine, which is Bad News for the Environment

The Energy Transition has been Thrown off by the Conflict in Ukraine, which is Bad News for the Environment

Just over a month into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Saudi Arabia’s top energy official reflected on the energy markets and said: “Look at what is happening today, who is talking about climate change now?”

The remarks made by Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman in late March were essentially a repeat of his speech to delegates at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November of last year, when he asserted that hydrocarbons could still be used in the globe without having to give them up.

Abdulaziz summarized his views on energy security and the climate catastrophe in a statement to CNBC, saying that the world’s top oil exporter would not forego the production of fossil fuels. “We are pro producing oil and gas, and hallelujah pro using coal.”

The situation in Ukraine, which is now on the verge of entering its fourth month, is raising concerns about what it means for global goals related to food, energy, and climate change.

The G-7 has warned Russia’s invasion has resulted in “one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history,” threatening those most vulnerable worldwide.

The attack by the Russian government on Ukraine, according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, is likely to have a significant impact on global warming targets, especially given that many nations are switching from Russian energy to coal or liquefied natural gas imports.

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

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

A planned energy shift has thus reached a fork in the road as a result of Russia’s invasion. As a result, authorities must consider how to move away from fossil fuels in order to prevent a catastrophic climate scenario.

The U.N. chief has said that instead of countries “hitting the brakes” on the decarbonization of the global economy in the wake of Russia’s invasion, “now is the time to put the pedal to the metal towards a renewable energy future.”

Energy security vs. energy transition

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin has brought the topic of energy security back to the forefront of political discourse. How to remove Europe’s reliance on Russian energy while stepping up the battle against the climate disaster is, in fact, one of the most urgent problems facing European leaders today.

Complicating this challenge, however, is the fact that many European countries are acutely reliant on Russian oil and gas.

Speaking to CNBC from Kyiv, Ukraine’s top climate scientist Svitlana Krakovska made clear that survival not energy security had been the top priority for people living 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 has previously told CNBC that the primary driver of the climate emergency and the root cause of Russia’s war both stem from humanity’s fossil fuel dependency.

“The more we continue our dependency on these fossil fuels and the more we postpone climate action, the less secure we are,” Krakovska said.

The primary cause of the climate crisis is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, and researchers have repeatedly emphasized that if immediate and significant emissions reductions are not made across all sectors, keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will soon become unachievable.

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

In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, governments from around the world committed to keeping global warming far below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing measures to keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The International Energy Agency has issued a warning that no new oil and gas projects are feasible for the latter.

Krakovska, who heads the applied climatology laboratory at Ukraine’s Hydrometeorological Institute, said that while it was currently difficult to assess the climate impact of Russia’s invasion, there were already clear examples of environmental destruction.

For instance, Krakovska said she had observed with some concern the large swathes of wildfires burning unchecked in Siberia, noting that Russian military units that would usually fight these fires have been relocated to the Ukrainian frontline.

According to satellite data, wildfires in Siberia last month were more than twice as large as they were at the same time period in 2021, the environmental organization Greenpeace said to CNBC. Burning trees in Siberia unleashes tremendous carbon pollution while melting methane-rich permafrost, a yearly occurrence of climate breakdown.

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

Why aren’t we talking about demand?

To some, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis should be seen as a harbinger of how countries think about their oil use.

“We can respond so much quicker on the demand side than we can on the supply side and we are not hearing enough about that,” Michael Lazarus, director of the U.S. office for the Stockholm Environment Institute, a non-profit research firm, told CNBC via video call.

In late March, the IEA published a 10-point plan to reduce oil demand, recommending policies such as reducing speed limits on highways by at least 10 kilometers per hour, working from home as much as three days per week when possible and car-free Sundays for cities.

The energy agency said imposing measures such as these would help to reduce the price pain being felt by global consumers, lessen the economic damage, shrink Russia’s hydrocarbon revenues and help move oil demand toward a more sustainable pathway.

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

“People want to do something. People want to contribute, and this reduces costs and vulnerabilities for households to invest in energy efficiency and conservation and it helps free up resources for the rest of the world to address this moment” Lazarus said. “This is really the moment 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 heating under 1.5 degrees Celsius had reached “now or never” territory.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reaffirmed that to keep rising global temperatures under this key threshold, emissions from warming gases must be halved by the end of the decade.

“We have here a contradiction,” Jose Manuel Barroso, chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former president of the European Commission, said at a May 10 event entitled: “The Conflict in Ukraine and Europe’s Clean Energy Transition.”

“While in the medium and long-term everybody agrees that the less dependent on fossil fuels the better. The point is how costly it will be and so I think there is a risk of backlash. I will even say that there is a risk of having the climate agenda as collateral damage from this war in Ukraine,” Barroso said.

The IPCC is unequivocal on the so-called “cost” of the global fight to secure a livable future: It’s not nearly as expensive as we may think.

“Without taking into account the economic benefits of reduced adaptation costs or avoided climate impacts, global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be just a few percentage points lower in 2050 if we take the actions necessary to limit warming to 2°C (3.6°F) or below, compared to maintaining current policies,” IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Priyadarshi Shukla said on April 4.