Share This Article
For many years, I write about climate change for Russian and international publications. Also, since 2008, I have been participating in UN climate negotiations as an observer.
For all these years, the climate issue in Russia has not been of particular interest to the authorities or society. This only changed in the last couple of years when finally the climate crisis was taken seriously in our country, and taking care of the environment even became fashionable.
Several factors have influenced this: active discussion in the West, the European Union’s plans to introduce a border carbon tax, and climate activists’ projects. It has gotten to the point where Russia has even developed its own long-term low-carbon development strategy. The country has promised to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and launch a climate experiment on Sakhalin.
But then the war started and everyone forgot about the climate. I myself stopped writing about it for a while. However, forgetting about the problem does not mean solving it. The climate crisis is still here and, because of the war, it has significantly worsened.
The text you are about to read is my first attempt since February 24th to return to this topic in Russian. I will explain how the climate threat has turned into a complex planetary crisis due to the war, which will be even more difficult to overcome. I will also explain why solving the climate problem is a chance for humanity to build a new, better world after the war finally ends.
In early May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Vienna, where he held a joint press conference with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen. They mainly talked about war – its destructive consequences, the evacuation of people from the conflict zone, and future peace negotiations (since “this war will not last forever”).
But not only that. The conversation also touched on the subject of climate, and the UN Secretary-General said that despite all of the dramatic situation in Ukraine, climate change still remains an “existential threat” to the whole world.
“We are already seeing the consequences of global warming everywhere, including right here in the Austrian Alps, where glaciers are retreating and snow cover is disappearing,” noted Guterres. He reminded that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 45% in this decade, otherwise the goals of the Paris Agreement will not be achieved.”
The Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 countries. Its main goal is to prevent the temperature increase on the planet from exceeding two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Perhaps it was worth reminding. At the beginning of the war, we started reading about all of this much less: greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Agreement, sustainable development. It’s difficult to seriously discuss the climate when people are suffering and dying every day due to the war. However, the climate crisis, of course, has not gone anywhere. Moreover, the war has exacerbated it.
Let’s start with the fact that military actions have quite concrete ecological consequences. Due to bombings that destroy buildings and other infrastructure, the soil is polluted. Oil products and hazardous chemical elements get into the water of the seas. Water supply systems collapse, for example the Popasnyansky water supply system in the Luhansk region or the water supply system in Irpin. Forests are on fire. Animals perish in zoos and shelters.
This is not a complete list – it can be continued. Belarusian project “Green Portal” and Ukrainian public organization “Ecodia“, for example, maintain a detailed chronicle of local ecological disasters caused by war. This chronicle is so extensive that Ukrainian Minister of Environmental Protection Ruslan Strelets refers to what is happening as “three months of undisguised ecocide.”
But the war in Ukraine also has less obvious environmental consequences. It disrupts supply chains, threatening global food security. Russia and Ukraine are among the largest suppliers of wheat and agricultural fertilizers. Therefore, military actions, port blockades, and trade restrictions are pushing the planet towards a food crisis at full speed. UN Secretary-General António Guterres previously stated that a shortage of grain crops and fertilizers threatens malnutrition and even hunger for tens of millions of people around the world.
You may ask what is the connection between the threat of hunger and climate. The direct link is that restrictions on wheat and fertilizer supplies from Russia and Ukraine to world markets have led Latin American countries to consider increasing their own food and fertilizer production. To achieve this, extensive areas of tropical wet forests may need to be cleared. These forests are not only traditional territories for the life and economic activity of local indigenous peoples. Tropical trees actively absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In short, we all live on one planet, and we have more common problems than we think. The consequences of war affect other global risks and intensify them. The International Monetary Fund even spoke of a comprehensive planetary crisis, consisting of three components: war, pandemics (yes, coronavirus is still with us), and global warming.
It turned out to be something like a perfect storm. We all have to live in the conditions of this storm.
Climate during the war
How the world once again forgot about a problem that it was long overdue to solve.
On February 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on the impact of human activities on the environment.
The IPCC is a UN body created in 1988 to assess and analyze scientific data on climate change. Its main task is to provide governments with scientific information that they can use to develop measures to combat global warming. The IPCC includes scientists from different countries and areas of expertise. They summarize the results of research and publications on the topic of climate.
The current report is one of the main climatic events of this year. However, as one can guess, it was discussed very little. Especially compared to last year’s report from the IPCC, which was called “the most important” and “epochal” (it confirmed that the main cause of global warming is human activity).
Polish journalist from Gazeta.pl, Patrick Stshalkowski, recounts that this year he wrote a review of a new report by the IPCC during the night shift, while also hosting a live broadcast about the war. In peacetime, Stshalkowski, who also produces a climate podcast, specialized in the topic of global warming. Meanwhile, some journalists who used to focus solely on climate change at the South African newspaper, Daily Maverick, were asked to temporarily retrain to cover conflict in Ukraine. Ethan Van Diman, a staff reporter who was once a climate journalist at the publication, said they now write about the Ukraine conflict full-time.
However, the conclusions of the report definitely deserve your attention. Here they are. The damage from climate change is increasing in all parts of the world. More than three billion people already live in regions and countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. They are threatened by floods and heat waves, disruptions in fresh water and food supplies. By 2040, from 3% to 14% of all terrestrial species will be on the brink of extinction in general. On average, the planet is warming by 0.2 degrees per decade. And, as Russian climatologists say, in 20-30 years, heat waves will become a problem even in cold Russia.
It sounds extremely alarming, also because it is unclear what will be done with all of this. The goal set by the Paris Agreement looked difficult to achieve even before the war, now it has become even less realistic: the governments of the leading countries, focusing all their attention on the armed conflict in Ukraine, have pushed the climate agenda aside as a non-priority.
At the same time, many climate activists have switched to anti-war campaigns. The issue of war is now the most important for them, although they continue to talk about the direct link between military conflicts and the consumption of fossil fuels and the climate crisis.
In general, attempts to somehow solve the problem of global warming have been put on hold. And this is primarily bad news for those countries that are most vulnerable to it. This is also due to money: in recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “climate financing” – when developed countries provide funds to developing countries for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. For this purpose, several special climate funds have been created at the United Nations level.
Back in 2009, at a climate change conference in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed to transfer $100 billion annually to developing countries. However, this has not been achieved so far – although, for example, the latest summit in Glasgow replenished climate funds with fresh contributions from the US and Japan. But environmentalists and activists have criticized developed countries throughout this time for clearly insufficient volumes of climate financing.
Now these funds are likely to become even less. In a situation where governments provide emergency financial assistance to Ukraine, additional funding for global climate goals needs to be found. Developing countries are now competing for funding with war-torn Ukraine – primarily for assistance from the United States.
It’s easy to understand the logic of the situation: the war is going on right now, and we’ll face the consequences of global warming sometime later. That’s why it has always been so difficult to draw politicians’ and society’s attention to the climate issue – in this sense, the war has changed little.
“One of the big problems of climate change is that politicians always think of it as a problem of tomorrow,” explains climate analyst Trevor Houser. “[For them] it’s a problem that can always be dealt with later.”
The tragedy is that we have long been late with solving this problem.
How the war slowed down the energy transition – but there is still hope for it.
One of the main solutions to the climate problem is considered to be the green energy transition – that is, a gradual transition from traditional “dirty” sources of energy (oil, gas, and coal) to renewable “clean” sources (such as wind and solar energy, collectively called RE).
Partially, the world already uses solar energy and wind energy – however, transitioning the global economy (or at least just the European economy) to them will take a lot of time. And a lot of money too, so the transition was planned to be long and complicated, but inevitable.
The war intervened – and messed up all the plans.
For several weeks now, Western countries have been discussing how to refuse Russian energy resources. What will they do without oil and gas from Russia? Will they buy from other supplier countries or switch to alternative energy sources?
If you have just thought about wind turbines and solar panels that will instantly conquer Europe, you are mistaken. An energy system based on renewable sources requires significant investments, including in energy storage systems generated by renewable energy sources. Therefore, any attempt to quickly transition to renewable energy will become a significant challenge for the economy of the European Union.
But it’s not just about money. Oil is a transportation fuel that cannot be replaced by renewable energy overnight. At least not now, explains the president of the Energy and Finance Institute, Marcel Salikhov. And until the future of high technology arrives, countries will have to buy oil from each other.
Gas and coal can indeed be replaced with wind and solar energy in theory, but the generation of electricity with these sources is unfortunately not constant (since there are windless days and cloudy ones). Therefore, every wind turbine or solar panel needs a backup power source that operates on fossil fuels. There are also logistical difficulties here – renewable energy sources must be somehow connected to each other to create a unified energy system. To do this, new supply chains must be organized and investment made in the appropriate infrastructure, Salikhov continues.
Therefore, countries are currently seriously discussing the possibility of returning – even temporarily – to coal energy, which is considered the most harmful in terms of climate impact. And somewhere they have started talking about the need to develop nuclear energy, but it also has many drawbacks. To put it very briefly, firstly, accidents at nuclear power plants can lead to truly catastrophic consequences. And secondly, it is difficult to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel. At the same time, European nuclear power plants still depend on supplies of Russian fuel, so both Western and Russian ecologists are calling for its abandonment in this area as well.
So, war and sanctions have plunged the world into energy turmoil. To deal with it, the market will have to undergo radical restructuring in the very near future. This will have long-term consequences: climate, economic and social.
In the short term, the European embargo will lead to a significant increase in energy prices on the global market, as well as prices for the production of many goods used around the world. This will mainly affect the poorest segments of the population in developing countries, but developed countries will not be immune either: due to the rise in energy prices, they will have less money (including, by the way, for investing in renewable energy sources).
Looks like a closed loop, but there’s also good news. Green energy is not just wind turbines and solar panels. One of its most important components is energy efficiency, which means reducing energy consumption, particularly its irrational use. Modern technologies already allow, for example, to spend less energy on production, to build new energy-efficient homes, or to make old ones more energy-efficient. All of this is not just empty words – energy savings lead to cost savings.
War can stimulate the trend towards energy efficiency. The International Energy Agency and the European Commission have prepared specific recommendations for EU residents on reducing energy consumption amid discussions of a European embargo. Following these recommendations will save as much oil as is needed to load 120 super tankers, and as much gas as is currently consumed by 20 million average households.
Therefore, the resource-efficient technology sector can expect a real boom in the near future. Saved money should be directed towards developing infrastructure necessary for the energy transition. By the way, the International Energy Agency (usually very conservative in their estimates) believes that the renewable energy sector will continue to grow this year despite everything, primarily in the EU and China.
But in Russia, the renewable energy sector faces many problems. The main international investors in this industry have already left the country – Vestas, Fortum and ENEL (however, domestic ones have remained).
By the way, about Russia
As a country pretends not to refuse its obligations – yet still seems to refuse them.
In recent years, Russia has been actively developing its own climate legislation. Without it, it would be difficult for the country to remain part of the global economy in the coming decades. In particular, it would be much more difficult to maintain active trade relations with the European Union, which is preparing to introduce cross-border carbon regulation.
Of course, Russia did not set itself overly ambitious goals: according to the Paris Agreement, carbon neutrality should be achieved by 2050, but Russia has stated that it is only ready to achieve this a decade later. However, at least at the level of official statements, the climate problem in the country has been recognized as real and serious (and at the beginning of the 2000s, everything was not like that at all).
But the war, sanctions, the rupture of diplomatic and trade relations with many Western countries – in such conditions, the state seems to have no time for the climate. And is it necessary now to fulfill its obligations, especially since it is not only difficult, but also expensive?
The authorities insist that the commitments have not disappeared anywhere. For example, in April, Vladimir Putin’s climate advisor Ruslan Edelgeriyev stated that despite the sanctions, Russia will not adjust its plans for developing the carbon market or its climate projects. He also believes that the country should not withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
The Deputy Minister of Economy of the country, Ilya Torosov, recently said something similar: “As long as the low-carbon agenda remains based on the principles we have adopted… This is our long-term trend, and the issue is not related to the current conjuncture”.
But this is only on paper – in reality, things are much less rosy. For example, the anti-crisis plan to support the fuel and energy complex, developed by the Ministry of Energy in the spring, does not exclude the possibility that the Russian sectors of oil, gas, coal and energy, under the conditions of sanctions, will simply not be able to achieve the previously stated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, Russian companies are asking to relax the regulations on emissions control for them. This is despite the fact that the Russian carbon regulation system is already one of the most lenient in the world: starting from 2023, companies with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions will simply have to report and confirm the accuracy of their reports with third-party verifier companies.
It is also worth mentioning the “Sakhalin experiment”. In early March, President Putin signed a law on the introduction of restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in certain Russian regions. Sakhalin was the first on the list, where such an experiment was planned since last year. The region was supposed to become carbon-neutral by the beginning of 2026. But it seems that this will not happen: at the end of March, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs suggested that the government postpone the start of the experiment for a year – until September 2023.
Meanwhile, several Russian oil companies and oil processing enterprises, including “Lukoil”, have proposed switching Russian power plants to burning fuel oil. The issue is that due to Western sanctions, Russia faces an excess of oil products and a lack of storage space for fuel oil – this could even lead to the shutdown of oil refineries. What to do, where to put all this fuel oil? Oil producers propose to burn it at power plants instead of natural gas. This will significantly harm the environment, for which oil companies in Russia are even fined. To avoid this, oil producers propose cancelling fines – as well as fines for excessive burning of associated petroleum gas (APG).
What is this fraught with? Burning natural gas exacerbates the greenhouse effect, harms not only human health but also the economy – valuable chemical raw materials are essentially just wasted. For many years, the Russian authorities regularly reported on successes in reducing the amount of natural gas flaring, and these successes were even recognized by the World Bank. Well, now the country is on the verge of nullifying its own environmental achievements.
But that’s not all. The country has allowed the production of vehicles of all environmental classes, including “Euro 0” – a thirty-year-old standard. This will undoubtedly affect the quality of the air we breathe, as well as lead to an increase in the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
One can only hope that Russia will not completely abandon its climate policy. However, it will be truly difficult for the country to stick to it. This is partly because motivation has significantly decreased: Russia was supposed to become “green” (or at least show a desire to do so) in order to look good, comply with the global trend, and maintain trade relations with Western partners. Now the country has lost all of this, and it is unknown whether it will find new reasons to continue what has been started.
It is somewhat encouraging that not only politicians, but also some representatives of Russian business say that the green agenda will not completely leave the country. However, they also recognize that in ESG issues, the main emphasis will now be on the “S” – that is, a focus will be made on the social component of business rather than the environmental.
In conditions of war, solving the climate problem naturally retreated into the background. However, the world needs to do everything possible not only to return to this topic, but also to take on it with double the strength. The word “climate” now embodies a lot of meanings, and all of these meanings are needed by humanity more than ever.
“Climate” is not only an opportunity to preserve and restore natural ecosystems. It is a chance to rebuild the world energy system and, as a result, achieve energy independence of states (including those with authoritarian political regimes). It is also an opportunity to learn to adapt to new risks and consequences of new disasters. It is more advanced socio-economic models, equality, social justice, civil rights and freedoms.
To someone, all of this may seem too abstract and idealistic. But perhaps the idea of the common good is capable of uniting countries at political, economic, and technological levels simultaneously.
And, of course, at the level of ideas for restoring peace in the post-war period. And it – one really wants to believe – will soon come.