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Science

Ukraine War: Boost or Setback for Climate Efforts?

November 3, 2022

BERLIN — Luetzerath may be 1,000 miles from Ukraine, but it is an indirect victim of Russia’s invasion and some fear so is Earth’s climate.

The ancient hamlet in western Germany will soon be demolished along with a wind park to expand a nearby coal mine, despite protests from environmentalists who fear millions more tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere.

Their concerns were echoed recently by Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, who warned that “the horrors of the war in Ukraine should not put climate action on the back burner.”

“Doubling down on fossil fuels is not the answer,” he wrote on Twitter. “The only path to energy security, stable power prices and a livable planet lies in accelerating the renewable energy transition.”

But Germany’s center-left government says the war in Ukraine means tough decisions need to be made on energy security and insists the nation’s climate goals will be kept.

Luetzerath’s days may be numbered, but the planet will be saved, officials argue.

Similar scenes are playing out across the world as countries try to fend off a feared energy crunch without betraying their long-term commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The question of whether the conflict in Ukraine will hasten or hinder the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy needed to keep global temperatures from reaching dangerous heights looms large ahead of next week’s U.N. climate conference.

In Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, officials point to new programs they say will massively increase sun and wind power generation. An even bigger plan by the European Union to wean itself off Russian gas could further boost the bloc’s already-ambitious emissions reduction targets this decade, said Rachel Simon, a policy expert at campaign group CAN Europe.

In the United States, President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has earmarked $375 billion for climate incentives that would slash the cost of installing renewable energy and shrink U.S. carbon emissions by as much as two-fifths until 2030.

Climate hawks say that won’t be enough.

While greenhouse gas emissions are rising more slowly than before, recent reports show the trend remains upward when it needs to point sharply down. Rising fossil fuel subsidies to cushion the impact of high energy prices and efforts to tap new sources of gas, oil and coal will further drive up emissions, at least in the short term.

This means the amount of carbon dioxide that can still be released into the atmosphere before the world hits the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) warming — agreed in the 2015 Paris climate accord — is being used up rapidly, expert say.

“It’s incredibly risky because not only does it reduce even further the carbon budget, it sends exactly the wrong signals” said Johan Rockstrom, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin.

Meanwhile, climate impacts already being felt worldwide — from fierce storms in the U.S. to extreme heat in Europe and worsening droughts in Africa — are hitting the poor hardest. Devastating floods in Pakistan have fueled calls for developing nations to receive climate compensation from big polluters.

Laden with debt and surging inflation, many vulnerable nations now find themselves struggling to pay for energy, let alone adapt to the effects of a warmer world, even as rich countries splurge on imports and new fossil fuel projects.

Experts say this could inflame tensions in Sharm el-Sheikh, undermining trust during the two-week U.N. talks that rely on consensus by all countries for any formal decision.

Russia could add further fuel to the fire. The world’s biggest exporter of natural gas is at loggerheads with the West since its invasion of Ukraine, while China, the biggest-emitting country, insists it also has a right to burn more coal.

Even if negotiations by the Red Sea produce little progress, experts are hopeful the war in Ukraine has jolted complacent governments into speeding up the transition from fossil fuels to clean power.

The war is “the perfect storm” for an accelerated path toward clean energy, said Rockstrom.

Laurie Bristow, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, said the measures now being taken by countries such as Germany were encouraging because they end not just the decades-long reliance on Russian gas but commit to a much larger energy transition.

“It’s the recognition that things could not go on as they were before,” he said. “And there are very big, very serious policy decisions in there.”

That’s little consolation to Elizabeth Wathuti, a Kenyan environmentalist, who visited Germany’s Garzweiler coal mine near Luetzerath with other activists last month.

“I’ve been very overwhelmed to see what is happening right behind me,” she said during the visit.

Wathuti said she couldn’t understand how Germany could justify burning more coal when the impacts of climate change are already becoming apparent.

“For my community and for my country, this is a life and death situation,” she told The Associated Press. “We cannot afford to continue investing in fossil fuels at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods who have even done the least to cause this crisis.”

“If anything, it’s only going to cause more devastation and more losses, more damages to my community,” she said.

 

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