The Russian invasion of Ukraine is barely three weeks old, but it’s already brought unspeakable suffering and destruction, as well as momentous shifts in the global order. Now, as Western countries have effectively started decoupling from Russia both economically and politically, a lot of attention is focusing on energy security and increasing fossil fuel production.
“We can come back to tackling climate change” later, we’re starting to hear. This puts the existential effort to decarbonize the global economy at risk of becoming collateral damage of the war — and that would be catastrophic.
But can we be outraged about the war, worry about energy security and fight climate change all at the same time?
Those goals aren’t necessarily at odds. But they will require a clear-eyed understanding of the dramatic forces now at work, both economically and geopolitically.
The war in Ukraine is, in many ways, an energy war. Europe in particular is becoming acutely aware of its dependence on Russian fossil fuels — a dependence that is literally fueling the conflict. The European Union, and to a lesser extent the UK and the US, buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil and gas from Russia every day (some of it transiting through pipelines that cross Ukraine), and it’s those millions that finance Russia’s regime and its army.
Weaning the continent off Russian gas and oil — a need that’s been spoken between the lines in European discussions for years — has become an urgent security imperative.
Europe relies on Russia for about 40 percent of its gas and about one-quarter of its oil imports. Cutting those flows is dual-edged — it would cripple Russia economically but could also trigger blackouts and chaos across the continent. That helps explain why EU sanctions currently do not extend to Russia’s fossil fuels (The US and the UK import far less and moved to ban oil imports).
Olaf Scholz, the recently elected German Chancellor who with a single, historic speech reversed decades of non-military foreign and security policy, has had to acknowledge that Europe’s supply of energy “can’t be secured otherwise at the moment.” His economic and energy minister Robert Habeck from the Green party warned of “mass unemployment and poverty.”
Hence, the flows keep flowing — and the fueling of Europeans’ cars and the heating of their homes funds the war. Columnist Javier Blas calls it “the commodities market version of the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction, or MAD.” It’s that madness that threatens to derail the efforts to decarbonize the global economy.
Europe’s energy predicament is largely self-inflicted. But that doesn’t alter the fact that weaning the continent off Russian gas and oil — a need that has been spoken between the lines in European discussions for years — has suddenly become an urgent security imperative. The European Commission has presented a plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030, starting with reducing gas imports by two-thirds by year’s end. (It includes increased imports of liquified gas, deploying renewables faster, conserving energy, developing hydrogen and taking measures to respond to rising energy prices.) The International Energy Agency (IEA) has added its own thinking towards reducing that reliance.
Tension between energy security needs and overarching climate goals is now central to the climate discussion.
This has definite positives when it comes to dealing with climate change, and there are plenty who see the instability provoked by the war as a fork-in-the-road moment, a renewed incentive to accelerate the adoption of clean energy.
Getting rid of the dependence on Russian fossil fuels means getting rid of fossil fuels — and once that shift to cleaner sources is achieved, there would be no way back. That is, for now, the position of Europe, which has found new unity and political vigor in response to the war. (It’s worth noting that this shared goal isn’t matched by a consensus on method yet: while Germany is phasing out nuclear plants, France is planning a vast expansion of nuclear power, for instance.)
Others, however, think that we cannot confront both energy security and decarbonization at the same time. In this view, the instability provoked by the war creates disruptions in energy supplies and price increases with significant economic and social repercussions. We should therefore tackle this crisis first, and worry about climate change later, by giving priority to securing energy supplies, increasing oil and gas production and delaying the phasing out of coal. This seems to be the position of the US (which is even trying to convince Venezuela and Iran to increase oil production), and to some extent, also the UK and China.
Who is right? This tension between energy security needs and overarching climate goals is now central to the climate discussion. It can’t be — and shouldn’t be — easily resolved. Either/or is a luxury we can’t afford. There are merits to both points of view, at least in the short term. It is not a choice so much as a dilemma, in which we need to keep two conflicting goals in mind at the same time, with the same high level of priority.
Which brings me to the second major challenge now facing climate action: deglobalization. Fighting climate change needs global collaboration. However, after decades of global integration, accelerated in 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization, the world is now becoming less integrated. This deglobalizing trend isn’t new, it can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis, and has been hastened over the last few years by the growing economic and strategic rivalry between the United States and China and by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has added to global inequality and provided new rationales for more protectionist policies.
To avoid a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia that could escalate into a generalized conflict — a third World War — the West has elected not to engage militarily in Ukraine but to offer external support.
For this trend, too, the war in Ukraine is a dramatic accelerating factor. To avoid a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia that could escalate into a generalized conflict — a third World War — the West has elected not to engage militarily in Ukraine but to offer external support. By itself, that’s a prudent and rational decision: no one wants NATO and Russian jet fighters getting too close to each other.
In parallel, however, Western countries have initiated severe economic sanctions on everything from Russian banks to technology imports to the assets of oligarchs. As a consequence of the sanctions (and of popular outrage at the war), hundreds of companies have withdrawn from Russia or suspended their operations. Many think that the country has become “un-investable” for a long time. This is putting huge pressure on Russia, but it has also transferred the theater of the conflict to the global economic sphere.
For instance, in a recent TED conversation Ian Bremmer, the founder of Eurasia Group, told me that the Chinese ambassador to Moscow gathered Chinese investors in Russia to suggest that the Western withdrawal represents a unique opportunity to “go in and do more because Russia is going to be relying on us.” Most of the sanctions, Bremmer suggested, are potentially functionally permanent (at least as long as President Putin is in power, and especially if he acts on his threat to seize the assets of Western companies), and their ripple effects will ignite a repatterning of the global economy.
Many scenarios can spin out of this situation, and here’s one. The world splinters into two ideologically incompatible parts, an authoritarian one around China and Russia and a democratic one around the United States and Europe. The underlying infrastructure also starts diverging, with separate credit card and payment systems, Internet networks, information spheres (this is already happening, especially after the thorough shutdown of any independent source of information in Russia), technological developments and supply chains. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is — the world was split into two such halves during the Cold War.
This New Cold War is different, however, for at least three reasons. First, the world has grown way more interconnected and interdependent, which means that a rapid reorganizing (or disorganizing) of global supply chains is going to bring significant disruption, from higher prices to shortages. Second, China is not the Soviet Union: it is a big, successful economy with an assertive foreign policy that has by and large achieved technological parity with the US, has the world’s largest navy, and is inching closer every day to the moment when it will regain control of Taiwan, the world’s semiconductor hub.
Finally, it is not obvious that much of the rest of the world would align itself with the US and Europe. The Western media has focused on the fact that the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine has gathered 141 votes, with 35 countries abstaining and only 5 voting against (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and Russia itself), framing it as a demonstration of a world united against Russia.
Spiraling energy and food prices, which hit less-well-off groups harder, have the potential to destabilize political systems, making ambitious climate policies even more difficult.
Meanwhile, too little airtime has been given to the list of countries that have actually joined the West’s sanctions, which is much shorter: the US, the UK, the EU, Canada, Japan and a dozen others. Southern countries, for instance, are staying out of it, possibly because they recognize the double standards the West is applying. Middle Eastern countries are also keeping their distance, their motivations likely both economic and political.
In other words, we are at a geopolitical juncture, facing a future of less “global liberal order” and more raw national self-interest. We already see less attention on international institutions and rules — which need to be re-imagined — and more to national sovereignty, and a competitive edge tilted towards those who control reliable sources of energy, materials and food, as well as technology and supply chains. Europe has surely woken up to the fact that “tectonic shifts” are happening and, in the words of France’s President Emmanuel Macron at last week’s Versailles meeting of EU heads of State, that energy, food and defense are issues of sovereignty.
Within countries, spiraling energy (and food) prices, which hit less-well-off groups harder, have the potential to destabilize political systems, making ambitious climate policies even more difficult. In this sense, the coming energy crisis will be a crucial test. It’s going to make very tangible how costly the climate transition is going to be, and the response will show how earnest we are. As the IEA puts it, “The faster EU policymakers seek to move away from Russian gas supplies, the greater the potential implication, in terms of economic costs and near-term emissions.” Absorbing those costs will demand huge effort, commitment and political creativity.
What are the implications of all this for the climate?
In the last few years, the fight against climate change has finally gained momentum, propelled by a combination of public pressure from the youth movement, of growing apprehension with catastrophic wildfires, floods, droughts and heatwaves on all continents, of increasingly accurate (and disquieting) scientific evidence and of the development of still vague (and often abused) but useful concepts such as net-zero and ESG.
The COP26 climate conference last November in Glasgow, although depicted by some activists as a failure, produced a series of real commitments with cities, the private sector, finance, science and civil society leading the way. Climate scientist Johan Rockström, a regular at COP gatherings, said that for the first time he saw “momentum that’s beyond incremental.”
Many of the materials necessary for a clean energy transition also rely on unstable global supply chains involving Russia, among others.
Overall, the momentum is still towards an energy transition (including when viewed through the behavior of stock market investors). But it’s now frighteningly easy to see how we could careen towards a world where the decarbonizing efforts of some could be entirely wiped out by others, less sensitive to public opinion and more focused on economic growth, just pumping and burning away. If you want to make it even more dystopian, think of a future split in two between a group of authoritarian fossil-energy-rich economies versus a group of democratic green-energy-fragile states. And when it comes to CO2, it doesn’t matter where and by whom it is emitted, because the atmosphere is one and shared.
For exactly that reason, fighting climate change needs global cooperation. The new configuration emerging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the West’s economic sanctions in response threatens to make that collaboration exponentially harder, if not impossible.
Moreover, fighting global heating and its impacts needs rich countries to share technologies and financial resources with poorer ones to allow them to adapt and develop their economies and societies without resorting to fossil fuels.
Until now, that support has been lacking, as the Prime Minister of the Barbados Mia Mottley said in her much-discussed talk at COP26, adding that “our people are watching and taking note.” At a more recent Financial Times conference, Mottley defended her country’s plan to expand fossil fuel exploration off its coast. According to the newspaper’s own account, she explained that developing countries need “a way to finance our route to net-zero,” and if the wealthy nations that “caused the problem” would not provide funding, they would need to find other ways to generate revenue, such as extracting and exporting fossil fuels. That’s probably a majority viewpoint among politicians from Africa to India and plays to the potential geopolitical divide that the Ukraine war is now triggering.
This is a time for putting all the cards on the table and exploring a new type of climate politics.
What applies to energy also applies to food and minerals — Ukraine and Russia account for about 12 percent of calories traded in the world, and the impacts of the war on food supplies are already been felt across the world. Furthermore, many of the materials necessary for a clean energy transition also rely on unstable global supply chains involving, among others, Russia, which I don’t have space to discuss in detail here.
So what do we do about it? This is a time for putting all the cards on the table and exploring a new type of climate politics.
Like the coronavirus crisis before it, the Ukraine war is unlikely to be the last global systemic shock with the potential to derail climate action. There will be other crises, and we can’t keep kicking the climate can down the road at every crisis. We need to develop a plan now, one that, as climate writer Gabrielle Walker told me in an email, “is dynamic and flexible, keeps everything on the table and adapts according to current circumstances”.
First, we need to acknowledge that in a world where the goal is to get rid of the foundational source (fossil fuels) that provides about 80 percent of our energy, climate solutions can’t be decoupled from energy security. Modern societies can’t function without a reliable supply of energy.
Even if renewables are now the cheapest source of power and Western countries come together to accelerate their deployment, implement serious measures to increase efficiency and reduce consumption, develop new approaches such as geothermal and hydrogen, and massively invest in new technologies (for instance for storage), it’s going to be impossible for them to maintain their economies’ stability over the short-medium term without fossil fuels and nuclear power. It takes years to bring a solar plant online, for example. In other words — and I say this as a climate activist — we will have to live with “impure” solutions to the energy crisis in the short term while keeping our eyes on the longer-term climate targets.
Second, while working on securing their energy supply, Western countries need to get much more serious about funding energy infrastructure across the global South — it’s a question of equity, but also crucial to counter the geopolitical divide that is starting to build. It’s also worth noting that China still has a net-zero commitment and is still very much interested in being a provider of low-carbon solutions (think solar technology) to the world. That’s also a conversation that should not become a fatality of Russian bombs.
Reframing the way we use the concept of net-zero could also be helpful here — although it does need a more stringent definition, possibly linking permission to offset some emissions more strictly to actual decarbonization. It could be framed not as a climate goal, but as a secure way ahead for the world, the mechanism by which energy security and decarbonization can both be achieved.
It’s now vital to reconcile short-term energy goals and long-term climate goals in this deglobalizing world with a unity of purpose and direction.
Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who directed the process that led to the Paris Agreement, told me in a discussion the other day that “what’s happening now should be a holy-shit moment for climate.” Her colleague Tom Rivett-Carnac, who was also on the call, added that the world “will hopefully come together around the challenge of incorporating the short-term energy security and social stability concerns into the long-term decarbonization imperative.” And not just those who identify as climate scientists, climate experts, climate investors or climate activists, but everyone who cares about keeping the planet welcoming for human life. So far, that unity has not been a characteristic of the climate community.
On February 28, 2022, a shocking report went almost unreported, knocked off the front pages by the war in Ukraine that started four days earlier. The IPCC, the United Nations panel that assesses the state of climate science, published a devastating second part (of three) of its sixth assessment describing how climate breakdown is accelerating. (The report’s “summary for policymakers” needs to be unanimously agreed, word by word, by all 195 member governments.) The UN Secretary-General António Guterres called it “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
That was followed, on March 8, by the International Energy Agency releasing its Global Energy Review report, which says that 2021 registered “the largest ever year-on-year increase in energy-related CO2 emissions in absolute terms,” with a rise of 6 percent, mainly driven by coal, and reaching their highest level ever. Meanwhile, record rainfall brought calamitous floods and deaths to Eastern Australia. In other words, the climate crisis is accelerating, and the urgency to decarbonize is indisputable.
It’s now vital to reconcile short-term energy goals and long-term climate goals in this deglobalizing world with a unity of purpose and direction. Meanwhile, the suffering and destruction intensifies in Ukraine, and confronting it is urgent.
And failing to do both at the same time would affect the world for generations to come. When he gave his inaugural speech in 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said something that is a fitting message for the whole world today. He said: “We will build the country of other opportunities … and for that, we need people in power who will serve the people. This is why I really do not want my picture in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
Bruno Giussani is the global curator of TED and a co-founder of its climate initiative, Countdown. Based in Switzerland, he recently interviewed historian Yuval Noah Harari and geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer about the war in Ukraine.