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Why the war in Ukraine could derail action on climate change

The UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned that the Ukraine war can make it very difficult for the world to meet crucial climate target

Most western countries have banned Russian oil and gas imports.  (Istockphoto)

There has been a fair amount of commentary on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is affecting the global supply of oil and gas. In this case, specifically Russian gas exports, which makes up for a bulk of that country’s income. With all Western nations imposing heavy sanctions on Russia and banning gas imports from that country, there has been some talk of how this war is yet another reason for nations to urgently switch to renewable energy (RE). One of the key criticisms of Vladimir Putin’s authoritative regime has been the way the state controlled Russian fossil fuel energy exports ensure that his transgressions of international law have been mostly glossed over.

However, if a switch to RE is generally a very good idea, none other than the US Secretary General António Guterres has warned that the Ukraine war may well ensure that the opposite is true. Speaking recently at a sustainability conference organised by The Economist, he said that the urgent global effort to limit global heating to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels may be fatally undermined. “The fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine risks upending global food and energy markets, with major implications for the global climate agenda. As major economies pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy to replace Russian fossil fuels, short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5C,” he said.

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If this were indeed to come to pass, with greater reliance on fossil fuel sources such as Saudi Arabia, or with countries resorting to greater domestic coal power generation, Guterres warned that the results could be catastrophic. This has echoes of the hopes of a green recovery from the global covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and the subsequent economic devastation. However, in reality, that only led to countries, including India, doubling down on the use of fossil fuels to recover.

Guterres’s remarks come at an important time. On 28 February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that collected evidence from the latest climate science to re-iterate the dangers of global average temperatures breaching the 1.5 degree Celsius mark, and the fact that countries need to act immediately in order to stay on track. In a few days, in early April, IPCC is slated to come out with another report that will detail the available pathways by which countries can slash fossil fuel emissions. The larger aim is for carbon emissions to be nearly halved by 2030 and completely eliminated by 2050. This doesn’t leave us much time. The Ukraine war, among other things, can throw a massive spanner in the works to mitigate global emissions.

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“Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction,” warned Guterres. It would be stupid not to listen.

Also Read: How climate change is increasing India's cyclone risk

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