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World leaders say the war in Ukraine strengthens the argument for a faster green transition to break dependence on Russian energy — but they aren’t acting like it.
Renewables, energy efficiency and other efforts linked to battling climate change are struggling to gain traction amid the short-term scramble to ensure there’s enough oil, gas and coal to get through next winter and keep energy prices down.
“Of course in the immediate term you need to make sure that you have energy to supply homes and businesses in your country,” Alok Sharma, the U.K. minister who presided over last year’s COP26 climate talks, told POLITICO. But he said in the longer term “what you will end up seeing is a big acceleration toward clean energy, which ultimately will be obviously a positive for the climate.”
Despite that optimism, countries are taking stop-gap measures that boost fossil fuels and could end up in conflict with their broader climate ambitions.
As fears rise of a cutoff of Russian natural gas shipments, countries from Greece to Poland and the Czech Republic are extending the life of their coal-fired power plants.
Germany is exploring liquefied natural gas import terminals to replace Russian pipeline gas, while France and Spain have restarted talks to build the Midi-Catalonia pipeline to link LNG terminals on the Iberian Peninsula to the wider continental market.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was in Algeria this week striking new gas deals, and Germany’s Green Climate and Economy Minister Robert Habeck was in Qatar last month.
In the U.S., President Joe Biden — caught between a desire to push forward its climate agenda and to respond to spiking gas prices agitating Americans — has implored the oil and gas industry to boost production, while also insisting that fluctuating fuel prices make a stronger case for switching to clean energy.
Biden and his European counterparts insist short-term supply measures won’t derail their climate goals. On a visit to Brussels in late March, Biden even said it was an “opportunity” and a “catalyst” for faster emissions cuts.
Climate watchers say they understand the need for compromises, as long as long-term plans to cut emissions are clear.
“Even climate hawks get that this is a messy moment and I don’t think there is anyone that would begrudge them tough decisions. But I think we begrudge it when you don’t have a clear direction of travel,” said Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project.
A key question is whether the current rush to ensure adequate fuel for the next few months doesn’t lock in fossil fuels by expanding coal mines, opening new gas fields and pouring concrete for terminals to transport LNG.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was scathing about the danger, warning: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
The stock answer from officials in Brussels and Washington is that any new gas infrastructure will one day carry clean-burning hydrogen. But although that’s “feasible,” the EU’s Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators warned: “It is uncertain when and where conditions for repurposing would be met across Europe, and whether they will be met at all.”
So far there haven’t been any new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure that would increase emissions, said Mike Coffin, head of oil, gas and mining research at environmental research firm Carbon Tracker Initiative. But it is still early days, he added.
The U.S. natural gas industry, for example, is pressuring Biden to approve four LNG export terminals opposed by environmental advocates.
Clean energy is expected to be part of longer-term response plans to Russia’s invasion — the EU’s strategy is expected in May. In Germany, the government aims to slash red tape around new wind or solar projects.
But there’s less traction on energy efficiency measures that could quickly cut overall energy use — something highlighted by the International Energy Agency and the European Commission last month.
Few top politicians have been willing to risk political blowback by calling on their citizens to use less energy by turning down their heating or driving more slowly.
Energy experts were critical of the British government’s energy strategy, released Thursday, for failing to include any measures to boost home insulation and cleaner heating. Without those, it’s “half a strategy,” said Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at University College London.
Asked about the strategy, Sharma pointed out that the government tackles energy efficiency through other existing programs, but conceded “there’s always more than one can do.”
In Italy, where the gas industry is a powerful player, the government’s response ignores energy efficiency and focuses on fuel supply, said Luca Bergamaschi, co-founder of the ECCO think tank. “We are going back to the ’90s, where energy security was about ensuring access to and transport of fossil fuels,” he added.
Italy’s Ministry of Ecological Transition did not respond to a request for comment.
Measures that reduce emissions but don’t make a dent in the EU’s energy dependence on Russia are getting even less attention.
Efforts to strengthen carbon sinks or green agriculture, for example, are taking a back seat. Some countries, including Germany and France, are allowing farmers to use areas set aside for nature protection for animal feed, and the EU has come under pressure to weaken its sustainable farming strategy amid disruptions to food production caused by the war in Ukraine.
There are efforts to ensure the war doesn’t push climate off the agenda.
A German official said June’s G7 meeting at Elmau Castle in Bavaria would not be co-opted by Ukraine and is still slated to focus on ensuring countries follow up on COP26 climate commitments. “This is our program, it has always been our program. There is no change regarding climate ambition, not at all. Rather we say, more ambition now.”
Sharma said these kinds of meetings are key opportunities to draw the focus back to climate and commitments made to reduce emissions by 2030.
“That is something that [world leaders] have to hold on to,” he said. “Completely understandably, huge amounts of focus and bandwidth is going on this illegal war in Ukraine. But nevertheless, the chronic affliction of climate change continues.”
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