Mike Buckley: What Russia’s war on Ukraine could mean for the future of climate change

'Ask any climate scientist, or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Getting the world off fossil fuels must be a much bigger priority than it is now.'

COP26

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine will have consequences that long outlast an eventual peace deal. Russia now faces some of the stiffest sanctions ever devised, which on paper aim to force Putin back to the negotiating table. Meanwhile the West and NATO are arming Ukraine, making new commitments on arm shipments by the day.

The problem is that neither is enough. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, repeatedly asks the West for more arms, more firepower and more funding. The answer he gets from the West is never enough, even as Russian forces continue to take apart his country at huge cost of life and infrastructure.

Sanctions too are not enough. They may be unprecedented but they are also piecemeal. Putin is finding ways to prop up Russia’s ailing economy, primarily through the continued sale of fossil fuels to a willing world.

The US may have banned the import of Russian oil, but it never imported a lot to begin with. The EU meanwhile has bought $35 billion worth of Russian fossil fuels and counting since the invasion. 

Most urgently the continued Western refusal to supply Zelenskiy with the more powerful arms he asks for means Russian forces can continue to wreak havoc in Ukraine. The latter’s forces may have done far more than anyone could have envisaged to hold off, and even push back, Russian troops. But they remain limited by lack of armaments, armoured vehicles and planes. The West needs to decide how much it wants this war to end, and how fast.

The West also needs to decide how much it wants to harm Russia’s economy. If the goal of sanctions is to force Putin to end the war then the West needs to decide when, and how hard, to make use of its most powerful remaining weapon – ending imports of Russian fossil fuels.

Granted there would be real consequences for many European economies, including key players like Germany and Italy, which are heavily dependent on Russian gas. But joint NATO and Western resolve to support the countries on the gas frontline with energy supplies and funding could make it happen, hastening the end of the war in the process.

That moment has to come. This period, where Western leaders decry Russian aggression and arm – even inadequately – Ukraine while simultaneously sending billions of Euros to Putin cannot continue indefinitely. Justice and the need for European security, and an end to Russian aggression, demands it.

The war has exposed the reality that Western dependence on Russian fossil fuels is untenable in the long term. We already had one unavoidable crisis – the climate crisis – forcing us to end our societies’ dependence on fossil fuels. We now have a second: Europe cannot remain dependent on Russian gas if it is to maintain its own security.

The need for change is increasingly recognised. “Nobody questions if things must change, just when and how,” says BloombergGreen’s Gernot Wagner. “Something is different”; the war has created a “palpable” difference in how political and business leaders discuss the urgency of ending the era of fossil fuels.

Wagner does not expect this renewed urgency to end with the war. Even before the invasion, he says, business leaders were increasingly acknowledging that climate change was a threat not only to lives and communities, but also to their ability to function and make a profit.

While their assessment of the real threat of climate change may be jarring, if the end result is a faster shift from fossil fuels it remains welcome. It is also good news that a growing number of countries and businesses have committed to achieving net-zero emissions, and that those pledges add up to limiting the increase in global average temperatures to under two degrees if fulfilled. Two degrees is not enough – we need to hit 1.5 – but it is progress.

Increasingly businesses are putting serious money into the climate fight. Stripe, for example, recently announced a new $925 million fund — paid into by companies including Google and McKinsey — to jumpstart the market for carbon removal technologies. 

An investment on that scale will not “solve” climate change; that will take trillions. But there is no doubt it shows business in the lead.

Business leadership cannot replace policy, which is essential. And while talk of ending Russian gas imports and replacing them with renewables is welcome, it is not yet action.

Some politicians are still fighting the tide. But others are stepping up: the C40 network of city leaders is pushing the world’s major cities towards net zero regardless of the actions of national leaders.

“City leaders will be crucial in fighting climate change,” says Labour’s Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees. Cities, he says, consume around 70% of all energy and generate three-quarters of global carbon emissions. With the leaders of the world’s biggest cities taking action, and doing it together, tangible action to reduce emissions can follow, in the process exposing the failure of national leaders which could force them to act further and faster.

Action is still much too slow. Ask any climate scientist, or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Getting the world off fossil fuels must be a much bigger priority than it is now.

But just as the war pushes national leaders to recognise that their security depends on ending dependence on Russian fuel, we find business and city leaders stepping up in ways they have not done before. Both help transform climate policy from a risk into an opportunity, and one that must be taken.

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