Climate change

How bad is Ukraine’s war on climate change?

A car drives past the Gazprom Neft oil refinery in Omsk, Russia, February 10, 2020.
Photo: Alexei Malgavko/REUTERS

One of the most important side effects of the war in Ukraine is a reassessment of Western countries’ dependence on Russian oil and gas. I spoke with new York editor David Wallace-Wells on what this means for global efforts to combat climate change.

Well: Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian catastrophe, but it has also changed the energy landscape. A consequence: an unfortunate a new life in coal in places that were aggressively eliminating it, including Europe. Although Russia still supplies oil and gas to countries that are heavily dependent on it, notably Germany, the war has also prompted these countries to rethink this dependence and find ways to produce cheap energy quickly, i.e. with charcoal. And although the United States is far less dependent on Russia, many powerful people here are using the war to argue that shifting fossil fuels too suddenly is a bad idea. Suddenly, the transition to clean energy, even in places that have taken it very seriously (so not America) has taken a back seat. How big of a setback do you think that is?

David: In the long run, I think it’s more likely to be useful, in the sense that it illustrated some of the non-climate costs of fossil fuels very clearly, and made a lot of people a lot more suspicious of of dependence, not only vis-à-vis Russia in particular but other Politically problematic oil states as well as. The status quo ante is basically no longer acceptable, and when you really ask the question “what should we build next” in all honesty and without any attachment to the old order, the answer is very obvious: a green future.

The problem arises in the short to medium term, and it is serious: the timetable we have could allow us even a half chance of keeping temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius – the declared objective of the Paris agreements and the world community of nations – is incredibly short. Any delay essentially puts it out of reach. And it will be a delay.

Well: So you think the main lesson that countries will learn from this is “build greener things faster” rather than “yes, build greener things faster would be good, but in the meantime we need to a more complete dirty energy infrastructure”?

David: I think it will be much more difficult for anyone to aggressively remove dirty sources right now, which is ultimately what is needed. But I think the logic of large-scale investments for the long term is going to be much clearer and stronger.

In other words, nobody is going to build a gas pipeline to Russia again. They will seek to meet these needs with other sources of energy. But in the short term, they may well turn to even dirtier sources to fill the gap.

Another worrying feature is how hard it has been to swallow the price hike. For a long time, economists argued that a carbon tax was the easiest way to decarbonize everything. This thought has been revised or set aside in recent years. But seeing the Governor of California push billions in gas price relief makes it a little harder to imagine a politically viable path to decarbonization that takes us through higher fossil fuel costs.

Well: It’s true, the idea that gas should be cheap is a central American idea. Which isn’t to minimize the struggle people are having with rising prices everywhere – just to say that it’s kind of a microcosm of climate change as a problem. When the choice is between short-term convenience and long-term stability, the former usually wins.

David: It’s a bit difficult to unravel these cultural threads – are Americans more sensitive to expensive gas because we think cheap gas is one of our inalienable rights, or because we drive so much more and burn many more liters than Europeans? – but at the very least, it seems obvious that our politicians are terrified of the backlash from the price spikes and are willing to do a lot to ease the burden. To some extent, of course, that’s admirable, because it’s the worst-off Americans who will be hit the hardest by these price increases, and the more lasting responses we might devise – like expanding transportation in common – will not help in the next six years. month. But those who had hoped that higher oil prices might be good for climate change are likely, at the very least, to be ambivalent about the world’s response, which has been much more focused on short-term needs than longer term solutions.

Well: Is it possible to focus on both? Or is that really too much to ask?

David: Well, not only possible, but probably necessary — that’s what the historical moment demands. You don’t want people going without heat in northern Europe at the end of winter, and you don’t want working-class Americans unable to afford a car to work. But while climate advocates often criticize the Biden administration from climate advocates, the president often speaks out of both sides of his mouth on these issues — citing global warming as an existential threat and endorsing ambitious zero goals. net, rather than urging OPEC to expand production, for example – with Build Back Better climate provisions still stalled Joe Manchin’s officeit’s more like the administration is just speaking out of one side of its mouth for now, letting its once ambitious climate agenda shrink and shrivel and recede and take care only of our massive fossil fuel demands .

As I said earlier, much of this is understandable, and perhaps even, in a vacuum, defensible. The problem is simply that there is no more time in any of our models for the delay. In 2018, the UN said that to maintain 1.5 degrees as a target, a 45% reduction in emissions was needed by 2030. Every year since then, emissions have been higher than all previous years across the world. history of mankind. The IEA and most other watchdogs expect emissions to continue growing for at least a few years from now. At that point, we’re out of time.

Well: You seemed much more optimistic at the beginning of this conversation!

David: I am both! I’m very optimistic that the long-term emissions trajectory is pointing in the right direction, which it never has before. But just pointing it in the right direction isn’t enough at this point; we wasted too much time. It must fall sharply, and immediately, and there is no indication that we are close to this:

When the Paris Agreement was born (COP21), we had 30 years to reduce CO₂ emissions to 0 in order to contain global warming to 1.5°C. Even if all the announced climate/energy policies were implemented, we would hardly have time left for the same task in 2030. Even the trajectory to 2C is starting to look somewhat dangerously steep.

Ben: I got it. On that note, I will return to the Will Smith/Chris Rock affair, which, unlike climate change, is actually the most important issue of our time.