Energy Transition

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine need not hinder climate progress. Here's why

A driver fills a gas can at a gas station, as a surge in fuel and energy prices in the wake of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine puts increased pressure on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's low-cost energy policy for households, in Martonvasar, Hungary March 18, 2022. REUTERS/Marton Monus

A driver fills a gas can amid a surge in fuel prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Image: REUTERS/Marton Monus

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Many countries don’t want to continue buying Russia’s fossil fuels following its invasion of Ukraine.
  • But efforts to tap other sources and ease prices may hinder climate progress.
  • Previous energy crises led to constructive climate efforts.

It’s “now or never” to stave off a climate catastrophe, according to a UN report published last week.

But “now” happens to be in the midst of another unfolding tragedy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has incurred efforts to punitively isolate the world’s third-biggest oil producer, in ways that threaten to impede the climate progress made to date.

In the US, where lawmakers approved a ban on Russian oil, surging gas prices following the invasion have spurred calls for more drilling and may slacken a recently-revitalized climate focus. Germany is firing up old coal power plants, and the Czech Republic now expects to rely on coal longer than anticipated. The UK aims to expand oil and gas drilling in a way that may “blow” its net-zero emissions target.

Goldman Sachs says a “global reset” in energy spending is underway, following years of declining investment in fossil fuels.

Yet, at the same time the stigma of Russia’s fossil fuels is spurring interest in pulling more out of the ground elsewhere, the UN’s report on dwindling opportunities to counter climate change is generating clashing headlines – and a sense of cognitive dissonance.

One of the rare positive takeaways from that report is an acknowledgement that some countries have actually notched sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years.

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But many places, particularly in Europe, now find themselves in a predicament due to their heavy dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. They must somehow keep the lights on without also seriously undermining their ability to adapt to a warming planet.

Learning hard energy lessons

Ultimately, the current situation may actually sharpen our focus on weaning ourselves from fossil fuels – no matter where they come from. While Goldman Sachs says spending on producing hydrocarbons will increase, it also says investment in renewable power will grow in tandem.

Meanwhile the companies responsible for the bulk of global carbon dioxide emissions may make use of high oil prices to do things other than drill for more fossil fuels – by using related windfalls to fund the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example.

Previous energy price shocks spurred progressive, climate-friendly measures.

Cars lined up for fuel in the US, June 1979.
Cars lined up for fuel in the US, June 1979. Image: Warren K. Leffler

When Arab oil-producing countries started limiting output in 1973 – also a result of an outbreak of war – it nearly quadrupled prices and triggered shortages and long lines at gas stations. Another price spike in 1979 had similar impacts.

In Europe, this sparked interest in “exotic” energy sources like wind and “power from sunlight.” France started building nuclear power capacity that now generates 70% of its electricity.

In the US, responses included instituting a national speed limit and setting the first fuel economy standards for the auto industry. The country also created a Strategic Petroleum Reserve – which is being tapped following the recent price surge.

It might seem misguided to focus on energy choices and climate change when a war is causing so much suffering. But there’s a clear link.

“This is a fossil fuel war,” a Ukrainian climate scientist said recently in a published interview, because a lack of progress on curbing the use of one has contributed to a country’s ability to wage the other.

More reading on Ukraine and energy

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make it easier or harder to stop climate change? According to this analysis, the answer depends heavily on how you frame the problem. (The Conversation)
  • The EU can simultaneously end its dependence on Russia and pursue decarbonization, according to this piece – which cites researchers who say member states should be able to get through next winter without Russian imports. (Nature)
  • Iraq exported more oil last month than it had in the previous half century, according to this report, and that may complicate efforts to diversify the country’s sources of income. (Al Monitor)
  • Even if Europe can find alternatives to Russian oil supplies relatively easily, according to this analysis, that will not be the case for gas. (Institut Montaigne)
  • “What climate policies are being implemented and are they working?” is just one section of this in-depth Q&A on the recent UN climate report. (Carbon Brief)
  • In a way, the UN climate report is a final warning, according to this piece – because we’ll likely have crossed a crucial threshold by the time the next one is published in about five years. (Inside Climate News)
  • Given the events of the past several decades, according to this analysis, it’s worth noting that investing in non-fossil energy systems would strengthen democracy’s place as a fundamental principle of modern government. (Yale Climate Connections)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Energy, Geo-economics and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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