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How the Russia-Ukraine conflict has pushed climate protection and clean energy into the background

NEW YORK CITY — At a recent UN Security Council meeting in New York City to discuss the war in Ukraine, delegates noted otherwise. On the conference table in front of them, the ambassadors had been given plastic water bottles to quench their thirst.

That wouldn’t have been remarkable without the fact that the UN decided in 2019 to go plastic-free. A banner put up at the entrance to the UN headquarters at the time made the policy clear: “No single-use plastic.”

The return of plastics to the Security Council chambers incensed climate-conscious diplomats and visitors as it seemed to signal that the environment had become an afterthought while the war in Ukraine took center stage.

All the bold talk about tackling the climate crisis in recent years seemed to evaporate the moment the war started, leaving the clear impression that the environmental agenda was some kind of luxury topic, to be discussed only in peacetime.

Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, an Ecuadorian diplomat and former President of the General Assembly, was the driving force behind the phasing out of single-use plastics at the UN headquarters.

Demand for coal in countries like India pictured has skyrocketed amid supply chain bottlenecks and the war in Ukraine. (AFP)

When asked about the apparent backsliding on the issue, Espinosa Garces said times of crisis are no excuse for abandoning environmental priorities.

“The climate crisis is an existential threat to our human security and we have a responsibility to make peace with our planet if we are to survive as a species,” she told Arab News. “Even in times of war, climate protection should not be neglected.”

She added: “Climate change is killing and displacing millions. It has more global and devastating effects than any war. We have to work on both at the same time.”

The relapse into established practices is not reserved for the UN’s plastic policy. The war in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on the environment, driving the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

Soaring oil and gas prices have prompted the US, Europe and other governments to ramp up production just as the world needs to wean itself off fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable energy sources.

Some critics, particularly in the US, see efforts to increase supply as a major backlash or even a “betrayal” of the environmental agenda, dooming global climate targets to reduce carbon emissions.

Once defended by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel as a purely economic project aimed at bringing cheaper gas to Europe, the controversial €10 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline was eventually frozen by Germany over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)

With his poll numbers falling ahead of November’s midterm elections, US President Joe Biden is under pressure at home to cut gas prices.

At the start of the Ukraine crisis, he released a record amount of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and urged oil and gas companies to speed up drilling operations. Breaking an earlier campaign promise, he also announced he would open more public land for drilling.

Despite the US pledge to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, climate change was barely mentioned in the March 1 State of the Union address.

This is despite the findings of the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose lead author, Heleen De Coninck, said the world had “reached the now-or-never point, warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels to limit .

In response to the IPCC’s latest report, released April 4, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, scourged wealthy economies and companies, saying they are “not just turning a blind eye, they’re adding fuel to the fire.”

In March, the US released record amounts of oil from reserves to stem rising fuel prices. (AFP)

“They are suffocating our planet because of their personal interests and historical investments in fossil fuels,” Guterres added.

On Earth Day, observed every year on April 22, activists staged nationwide protests and called on the US government to take concerted action on climate change, including passing a new climate law that would bolster clean energy investments worth approximately half a trillion dollars.

Activists want the Senate to pass the stalled bill as soon as possible, fearing it will never get through Congress if Democrats lose control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

Biden’s hands appear to be tied, however, as Republicans in Congress, along with a Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of coal-rich West Virginia, continue to water down and even block the president’s climate change proposals.

Instead, the priority is to help Europe free itself from its dependence on Russian oil and gas, increase domestic production and free up reserves to lower prices for US citizens.

The EU imported about 40 percent of its natural gas, more than a quarter of its oil and about half of its coal from Russia in 2019.

In response to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the US has banned Russian oil imports. (AFP/File Photo)

In a joint statement with the European Commission on March 24, Biden appeared to have two conflicting goals in mind: to help Europe decouple from Russian energy while making a 1.5 degree Celsius cap on warming “within reach”. keep.

There are also members of Congress who want to “accelerate domestic energy production of all kinds” to power Europe and “even fund the infrastructure for them”. Balancing these efforts with global climate goals will likely prove going too far.

However, some believe that if Europe manages to end its dependence on Russian energy, it could be a blessing in disguise, offering Europe a golden opportunity to become fossil-fuel free in the long term.

One opinion school says the war is an opportunity to accelerate the adoption of clean energy technologies. If so, the war could actually help the continent meet its climate goals.

Predictably, environmentalists were heartened on February 22 when Germany withdrew its permit for a newly built gas pipeline from Russia. Berlin is now planning to import liquefied natural gas from Qatar and the USA.

Meanwhile, Belgium is reconsidering its aversion to nuclear power, and Italy, the Netherlands and the UK are all stepping up their efforts to install more wind power.

US President Joe Biden’s ecological balancing act will be put to the test in November’s midterm elections. (AFP)

However, efforts to reduce dependence on oil and gas have also created new demand for coal – a cheap, easy, if much dirtier alternative – in places that were in the process of phasing out.

On March 21, Guterres, in his first major speech on climate and energy since last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, said the fossil fuel rush over the war in Ukraine was “madness” and threatened global climate goals.

Coal must be banned with a full phase-out for richer nations by 2030 and 2040 for everyone else, including China, he said.

Paradoxically, while the war in Ukraine could accelerate Europe’s long-term shift away from fossil fuels, it could slow the clean energy transition – and thereby increase greenhouse gas emissions – elsewhere around the world if coal makes a comeback.

“Countries could be so affected by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or even kneel on fossil fuel reduction policies,” Guterres said. “This is insane. The dependence on fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Countries must “accelerate the phase-out of coal and all fossil fuels” and implement a rapid and sustainable energy transition.

It is “the only true path to energy security,” he said.

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