Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have a profound impact on the world’s race to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, climate experts have warned – but it may not all be negative.
Vladimir Putin’s attempts to wield his dominance over European energy supplies as a weapon to limit interference in his war appear in danger of backfiring. Europe is embarking on a clean energy push that could reduce Russian gas imports by more than two-thirds, while the UK will set out an energy security strategy within days that will emphasise renewable power. In the US – as well as pumping more fossil fuels – president Joe Biden is renewing efforts to pass his mauled green investment package.
David Blood, the prominent financier who with Al Gore founded Generation Investment Management, believes the Ukraine war should boost green energy. “The irony is, this war is funded by the west’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. There is now significant evidence to show that hydrocarbons are not just environmentally unsustainable, but that they weaken the social, political and economic fabric of our world too,” he said. “This war provides even more evidence of why there is no time to waste in transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards a cleaner future.”
This fresh impetus to decarbonisation probably caught Putin by surprise, as he had been “happy to use climate to exacerbate tensions within the west”, said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the US, and a former high-ranking World Bank climate expert.
She said EU countries’ commitment last year to reach net zero emissions by 2050 may have fed into the Russian president’s calculation that he should no longer delay his long-standing ambitions over Ukraine. Every step towards clean energy in Europe diminishes his economic hold over EU states: Europe gets 40% of its gas from Russia, rising to 60% for Germany, but that demand must all but disappear by 2050 if the net zero aspirations are to be met.
“Putin’s understanding of what decarbonisation, especially in Europe, would mean for Russian energy exports in the medium and long term may have been one factor in the timing of his invasion of Ukraine now,” said Kyte. “The more time passed, so the appetite for fossil fuels would diminish. However, the nature of the west’s pivot away from Russian fuel in response was likely not part of the calculus.”
In the long-running UN annual negotiations on the climate, Russia has played a low-key but not outwardly obstructive role for decades. Todd Stern, former US climate envoy under president Barack Obama, and who helped negotiate the 2015 Paris climate agreement, said Russia “didn’t try to throw sand in the gears” but did little to help.
“Nothing I’ve ever seen suggests [Putin] has had any desire to be an active, high-ambition player,” he added. “I doubt climate has entered into his calculations except when he thinks he can get something for it.”
Something Putin could get for it has been to foment populist culture wars, particularly in the US where he acted, according to Kyte, as the “climate whisperer” to president Donald Trump, “encouraging scepticism of scientific consensus”. Russian social media bots and troll farms honed their disinformation techniques for years on lies about climate science.
Yet Putin himself is believed not to be a climate denier, and listens to Russian experts who have made clear the climate chaos that will come from rising carbon emissions. The deeper question is whether the Russian president regards those ravages as a problem. Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and rising sea levels will scour the planet, but those impacts will be diffused across the vast landmass of Russia – the biggest country on the planet, but sparsely populated compared with rivals such as China, India and the US.
According to the comprehensive report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published at the end of February, Russia will fare far better in terms of the impact on agriculture than regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and the US. Its productivity for some key crops such as wheat could increase. The biggest risk the IPCC found to Russia was permafrost thaw.
Putin is even hoping to exploit some aspects of the climate crisis, such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap, which could open up new shipping passages and make oil and gas drilling easier. Russia is notably pushing its Arctic territorial claims, even while invading Ukraine.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate change adviser, says the Russian president has no scruples over inflicting climate catastrophe on the rest of the world, while seeking advantages for himself.
“Putin has acted with utter contempt for the climate, just as he has violated all norms on human rights and international sovereignty,” said Bledsoe, who is now at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington DC. “He is planning massive new oil and gas developments in the Arctic, which would devastate that fragile region, including by hastening the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, which is crucial to global climate stability. And he has done nothing to prevent Siberian tundra melt, which will unleash gigantic new methane releases. Putin has made Russia a climate outlaw state.”
In an optimistic analysis, if the Ukraine war accelerates the shift to renewable energy in the EU, the UK and the US, it could mark a turning point for the world’s efforts to decarbonise. Campaigners warn the opposite could also be true, and an expanded role for fossil fuels could push the goal of staying within 1.5C of global heating out of reach. But Stern believes that fear could be overdone.
“What China does or does not do to meet the call of the Glasgow climate pact to ramp up its [emissions-cutting target] will almost surely have much greater impact on account both of China’s carbon footprint, and the power of its example for other high-emitting developing countries,” he said. “Whether the US Congress delivers climate legislation will also make a big difference.”
Even in the best case, however, the human cost and suffering inflicted recklessly and willingly by Putin in Ukraine will cast a deep shadow over the world’s efforts to prevent climate breakdown. Governments scrambling to deal with the military threat, the refugee crisis and the economic impacts of this Russian-made crisis will be in a poorer position to concentrate on the looming threat of the climate emergency.
“By definition, [the war] demands intensive focus and so diminishes the amount that relevant leaders focus on climate,” said Stern. “When you’re trying to get big things done, that diminishing of focus can matter.”