Russia continues its offensive in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, while Ukraine intensifies its campaign to retake the occupied territories. Six months after the outbreak of the war, there is no end in sight for now. The war has displaced millions of people who even fled the country, shaken the existing international order, raised the spectre of famine in the poorer parts of the world, and triggered a short-term spike in oil and gas prices.
Meanwhile, another global challenge is severely threatening the very existence of humanity. For decades, widespread and rapid climate change has been challenging the development of human societies, and it is intensifying. This summer, a ferocious heat wave has hit Europe, causing drought, wildfires, and heat-related deaths. From June to August, the highest recorded temperature in Europe reached 47.0°C (116.6°F) in Pinhão, Portugal, on July 14. Increasing frequency and severity of heat waves is a feature of intensifying climate change, which is irreversibly accelerating sea level rise, bringing more frequent extreme weather, and worsening food and water scarcity.
Worse, the outbreak of war in Ukraine could hinder our current efforts to combat climate change and alter long-term climate action planning.
Massive Carbon Emissions from Military Operations
War has brought widespread suffering, death, and destruction, but its impact on climate and the environment is less understood. Billions of dollars worth of guns, tanks, support trucks, and fighter jets are involved in the battle, consuming huge amounts of fuel and resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions that remain difficult to quantify and are rarely discussed.
Greenhouse gas emissions from military operations are greater than we might think. Estimated by Brown University, U.S. military operations have caused 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases emission since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan through 2018. It is equivalent to the annual emissions of 257 million passenger cars, more than double the number of cars on the road in the US. And according to a study published by The Left group in the European Parliament, the EU’s military sectors had an annual carbon footprint equivalent to 14 million cars in 2019, before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. These are just the emissions in peacetime, while the emissions after the outbreak of war in Ukraine will only be higher.
These numbers can help us realize how much energy is consumed and how much carbon is emitted by the general US and EU military operations, but they do not allow us to make an accurate estimate of the climate impact of the war in Ukraine. This is because due to the fact that the military equipment and fuel used are not identical, the US and EU military emissions data are not applicable to Russia and Ukraine, whose data are currently unavailable. Currently, countries are not obligated to estimate and publicize their military emissions because it is not included in the transparency framework under the Paris Agreement. As a result of the Ukraine war, many civil society groups and think tanks are currently seeking to promote public disclosure of information on the environmental and climate impacts of military operations.
The Impacts on the Global Energy Market
Compared to the high energy consumption and carbon emissions caused by military activities and war-induced arms proliferation, the reshaping of the global energy market by the war in Ukraine has a longer-term impact on the global low-carbon transition and climate action. This is caused by Russia’s important role in the global energy market. As one side in the war, Russia is currently the second largest producer of both oil and natural gas in the world, as well as the second largest exporter of oil and the first largest exporter of gas.
Europe is highly dependent on Russian energy, with its imports from Russia accounting for a quarter of Europe’s energy consumption in 2020. At the same time, Europe is the main destination of Russia’s energy exports, with the share of Russian oil and gas exports to OECD Europe reaching 49% and 74% of Russia’s total exports, respectively.
As sanctions against Russia for waging war, the EU joined the US in kicking Russia out of the SWIFT system, imposing an embargo on Russian oil and gas, and suspending the certification process for the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. As a result, Europe is forced to shift its energy strategy in the short term to meet its domestic energy needs, which have been dramatically increased by the cold winter at the beginning of the war and the heat wave now underway. up to this point, Europe had been a global leader in the green transition, has set for itself a binding target of carbon neutrality by 2050 requiring a greenhouse gas emission reduction of at least 55 percent by 2030 (see Fit for 55 plan accompanied by a package of related climate, energy, and transport-related legislation).
In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, though, the urgent need for energy has led the EU to march in the opposite direction of green. Gas in the eurozone became at least six times more expensive than it was before the pandemic due to energy shortages. The high prices have forced European countries to turn back to coal, which is cheaper and not monopolized by Russia, despite the fact that its combustion emits significantly more greenhouse gases. Just a few months after the Glasgow Climate Conference (COP26), European countries that had been pushing for the “coal phase-out” proposal are restarting their coal power plants to protect valuable natural gas reserves: Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands announced the lifting of restrictions on fossil-fuel power plants and extend the lives of dozens of coal plants that were scheduled to close by 2030. At the same time, France is also actively considering restarting its Saint-Avold coal-fired power plant, which was closed this March, to meet the demand for winter heating. The surge in European demand for coal is putting additional pressure on coal-producing countries, such as Australia and Indonesia, which are about to reach their export peaks.
The massive fossil backsliding is a dangerous signal. If handled properly, the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine should have served as an opportunity to accelerate the green transformation, as the long-term solution can only be the expansion of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. But driven by the urgency of time, countries are still looking for solutions in fossil energy jeopardizing the stated goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
In contrast to Europe, the US is relatively energy-independent. Thus, although the US also banned oil, gas, and coal imports from Russia, the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on its energy transition and climate action are more indirect. In 2021, the United States under President Biden pledged to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade (50-52% from 2005 levels) and send long-promised-but-unfulfilled climate funds to help developing countries make the transition to cleaner energy, increase their climate resilience, and protect communities from climate impacts such as heat waves, extreme weather, and sea level rise. The war in Ukraine put US international commitments on hold. Since the outbreak of war on February 24, the US has provided approximately $9.1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. Somehow this squeezes out climate finance that could have been used for energy transition and international assistance. Despite the Biden Administration’s promise of $11.4 billion a year in international climate financing by 2024, the US Congress has only approved a mere $1 billion for 2022. According to calculations by the Overseas Development Institute, the US should provide $45-50 billion a year in international climate finance for fairness, and the $1 billion voted by Congress is only 2% of its fair share.
At the same time, the US ban on Russian oil, coal, and gas imports has pushed up domestic gas prices and increased inflationary pressures. In this light, the Biden Administration has lifted restrictions on domestic oil and gas drilling to expand production.
Eventually, after protracted negotiations notably within the Democratic Party itself, the US passed the largest climate legislation in its history this August. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 promises to redirect nearly $370 billion to climate and energy security measures over the next decade, expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 41% by 2030. But that reduction is still less than the 50% promised by President Biden and it is debatable whether it will restore US credibility as a global climate leader before the upcoming COP27.
- The rest of the World
The war in Ukraine has upended global energy flows. China and India are receiving more crude oil and natural gas from Russia as it loses its largest market, Europe. Europe imported more natural gas from the US than Russia for the first time and is increasingly looking for crude oil from the UK, Norway, and the Middle Eastern countries, as well as coal from Indonesia, Australia, and South Africa. The original importers of these regions, such as Japan and South Korea, are struggling to compete for oil, coal, and natural gas while suffering from rapidly rising energy prices. The disorder and rising costs of global energy markets have caused most industrialized and middle-income countries to put their current energy priorities on stabilizing supply and have to slow down the green energy transition.
And it could be even worse for a wider range of developing and least developed countries. According to a recent report released by the UN Global Crisis Response Group, an estimated 1.6 billion people in 94 countries are suffering from the cost-of-living crisis, food, and energy poverty, and social unrest exacerbated by the ripple effects of the Ukraine war. As energy prices soar, these countries are unable to meet basic energy needs and become more indebted, and therefore will likely experience setbacks in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Russia-Ukraine war, which has no end in sight, has not only brought death and destruction to Ukraine but has also cast a cloud over the world. Shortages in energy supply and rising prices are disrupting the intended global green energy transition. Half a year after the outbreak of the war, the world is seeking solutions to address the crisis in a sustainable manner and minimize the harsh consequences of the war. In the short term, one can only hope that the upcoming COP27 in Egypt and the G20 summit in Bali will help countries clarify ideas, develop new plans and reach consensus on renewed global climate action in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war.