Ukraine War’s Latest Victim? The Fight Against Climate Change.
BERLIN — The Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed like an unexpected opportunity for environmentalists, who struggled to draw the world’s attention to the kind of energy independence renewables can provide. As the West tried to break away from Russian oil and gas, the case for solar and wind energy seemed stronger than ever.
But four months after the war, the struggle to replace Russia’s fossil fuels has caused just the opposite. As the heads of the Group of 7 industrialized nations gather in the Bavarian Alps for a rally to strengthen their commitment to fight climate change, wartime fossil fuels are resurgent, with leaders more focused on lowering the price of oil and fuel. gas then immediately reduce their emissions.
Nations reverse plans to stop burning coal. They are chasing more oil and putting billions into building terminals for liquefied natural gas, known as LNG
Long on the defensive, fossil fuel companies are capitalizing on energy security fears and lobbying hard for long-term infrastructure investments that risk derailing international climate targets agreed only last year.
“That’s the battle we’re in right now,” said Jennifer Morgan, global ambassador for climate change at the German Foreign Ministry and former president of Greenpeace International. “We’re in a moment of tremendous disruption from the invasion, and that’s either a big risk or it’s a big opening for the climate.”
The leaders of the Group of 7 countries, including the United States and Germany, find themselves between ambitious goals to get rid of fossil fuels and direct political and economic pressures from the war. Those more immediate concerns will dominate much of the agenda in Bavaria as leaders look for ways to mitigate the war-induced spike in energy costs that has contributed to rapid global inflation and secure supplies for the foreseeable future.
In a marked turnaround, Germany is lobbying another group of 7 countries to scrap a joint commitment to ban public investment in foreign fossil fuel projects by the end of this year. If the member states agree, it would not only be more difficult to convince the rest of the world to cut emissions and invest in renewable energy, but also the stated goal of limiting global warming to 1. 5 degrees Celsius at risk, analysts warn.
Another proposal that has picked up steam in recent days and is expected to appear at the top is a price cap for Russian oil, allowing European countries to import it, but only at an artificially low price. That could help lower oil and gasoline prices worldwide and reduce the energy revenues that fuel President Vladimir V. Putin’s war efforts in Ukraine. It could also stimulate more Russian oil production.
An architect of the idea, US Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, has secretly told foreign leaders that imposing the so-called price cap on Russian oil sales to Europe would be the best thing those leaders could do now to minimize the chances of a global recession, according to people familiar with the talks.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
On the eve of the summit, the host, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, insisted that tackling the short-term energy crisis caused by the war in Russia would not derail long-term climate goals.
“It is important that we discuss the situation today while ensuring that we stop human-induced climate change,” he said in a video posted on Saturday. “Because we have to do that, by forgoing the use of fossil fuels in the long term.”
Climate activists, many of whom are protesting the summit on the streets of Bavaria, are not taking it.
“Instead of a massive revival of renewables, we are experiencing a massive decline in fossil fuels,” said Luisa Neubauer, Germany’s most prominent activist in Fridays for Future, an international movement. “Germany is one of the countries that is driving this fossil backlash through both our domestic and foreign policies.”
Before the invasion of Russia in February, the Group of 7 countries had made a number of climate commitments: abandon coal by 2030; decarbonise their energy sectors by 2035; to increase public investment in renewable energy sources; and to end public funding of foreign fossil fuel projects by the end of this year.
But as the energy joust between Russia and Europe has escalated, the tone has changed.
This month, Russia cut by 60 percent the amount of gas it supplies through Nord Stream 1, a crucial pipeline serving Germany and other countries. That prompted European governments to set fire to coal-fired power stations that had closed or were slated to be phased out.
Germany subsidizes petrol prices and extends the life of coal-fired electricity generators. Dutch coal-fired power stations, with a capacity of 35 percent, have been given permission to increase to 100 percent until 2024. Austria is reactivating a coal-fired power station that was shut down in April 2020. Italy is preparing to allow half a dozen coal-fired power plants to act in production.
In the United States, the idea of a price cap for Russian oil is seen as a way to lower oil and gasoline prices and put a dent in the Kremlin’s finances. To date, Russia has found a way around sanctions and embargoes in the West by selling to China and India, which gobble up its oil at discounted – but still lucrative – prices.
The proposal would in fact allow Russia to sell more oil to Europe, but only at a steep discount from its current price of over $100 a barrel. Also Mrs Yellen as top economic officials in Ukrainesay it would serve two main purposes: to increase global oil supply to put downward pressure on oil and gasoline prices, while reducing Russia’s oil revenues.
Proponents say it is likely that Russia will continue to produce and sell oil, even at a discount, as it would be easier and more economical than capping wells to cut production. Simon Johnson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates it could be in Russia’s economic interest to continue selling oil with a price cap of just $10 a barrel.
Some proponents say it’s possible China and India would also insist on paying the discounted price, further plummeting Russian revenues.
Most troubling, analysts say, is the current battle for gas supply with long-term infrastructure investments that would make it nearly impossible to meet the goal of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Germany has passed legislation authorizing the construction of 12 new LNG terminals and has already put four into operation floating the ones.
Critics argue that building all 12 terminals would create overcapacity. But even half that number would produce three-quarters of the carbon emissions Germany is allowed under international agreements, according to a recent report published by a German environmental watchdog. The terminals would be in use until 2043, far too long for Germany to be carbon neutral by 2045, as promised by Mr Scholz’s government.
And countries are not only investing in infrastructure at home.
Last month, Mr. Scholz was in Senegal, one of the developing countries invited to the Group of 7 summit, to talk about cooperation not only in the field of renewable energy, but also in the field of gas extraction and LNG production .
In promoting the Senegal gas project, analysts say, Berlin is violating its own Group of 7 commitment not to provide government funding guarantees for fossil fuel projects abroad.
These contradictions have not gone unnoticed by poorer countries, who are wondering how the Group of 7 countries can push for commitments to climate goals while investing in gas production and distribution.
One explanation is a level of lobbying by fossil fuel companies not seen for years, activists say.
“It seems to me an attempt by the oil and gas industry to end the Paris Agreement,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, an advisory group in Berlin, referring to the landmark 2015 international treaty on climate change. “And I’m very afraid that they will succeed.”
Ms Morgan from the German Foreign Office shares some of these concerns. “They are doing everything they can to move it forward, including in Africa,” she said of the industry. “They want to lock it up. Not just gas, but oil and gas and coal.”
But she and others are still hopeful that the Group of 7 can become a platform to link climate goals to energy security.
Environmental and foreign policy analysts say the Group of 7 could support investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, while pledging funds for poorer countries hardest hit by climate disasters.
Above all, activists warn, rich countries must resist the temptation to respond to short-term energy shortages by re-betting on fossil fuel infrastructure.
“All the arguments are now on the table,” said Ms. Neubauer, the Fridays for Future activist. “We know exactly what fossil fuels do to the climate. We also know very well that Putin is not the only autocrat in the world. We know that no democracy can be truly free and secure as long as it depends on fossil fuel imports.”
Katrin Bennhold Bennhold reported from Berlin, and Jim Tankersley from Telfs, Austria. Erika Solomon and Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.