It has been a year of horror for the Ukrainian people, following the invasion by Russian forces last February. The damage to buildings, infrastructure, and civil society will take decades to fix, and the human cost may never be fully tallied. The war has also drastically altered the political, technological, and economic landscape of Europe, and inevitably, impacted the world’s ongoing climate crisis. In November, Climate Focus calculated that the first seven months of the war had released about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide—about the same as the Netherlands over the same period. But direct emissions are only part of the war’s carbon story, which is unfolding in surprising ways. Could the war spark a global energy transition? Or corner the world in a fossil fuel trap?
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The Initial Shock
1. War looks a lot like natural disaster. Sudden devastation, an economy in tatters, death, and migration. Alongside the human tragedy of an earthquake or hurricane, the carbon costs of extreme events is well known. Studying disasters around the world spanning 30 years, scientists at the University of Business and Economics in Beijing found that natural disasters significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Ukraine’s civilian economy is virtually at a standstill, and Russia’s carbon footprint will likely also shrink from trade restrictions and depopulation, according to a report at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But that can hardly be considered genuine decarbonization,” its author warns.
2. War has its own unique carbon dynamics. The actual mechanics of warfare—all the bombs and shells, plus fuel for tanks and planes—represent less than 10% of the war’s overall emissions, according to the Climate Focus report. Untamed fires accounted for nearly 25 million tons of CO2 emissions up to November, and methane leaking from the Nord Stream gas pipelines another 15 million tons of CO2 equivalent. But as with most natural disasters, repairing civilian infrastructure and housing will be the biggest carbon source in the Ukraine invasion. On one hand, about half of all emissions will come from reconstruction. On the other, building back using low or negative carbon construction technologies could slash those figures, and help Ukraine leapfrog the rest of Europe in energy efficiency.
3. War rations. Natural gas prices in Europe shot up by as much as 700% after the invasion. The EU quickly set a target of reducing demand for natural gas by 15%, and is doing impressively well. In January, demand was 25% lower than average. But Russia still managed to find buyers for its fossil fuels, expanding its supply to countries like India and China, and even profiting from the higher prices. The price and supply shocks also scared off some European countries from pursuing their phase-outs of coal—the dirtiest fossil fuel—with European coal consumption actually increasing by 6% in 2022.
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The Long View
1. Accelerating renewables in Europe. The Ukraine invasion amply demonstrated the false economy of cheap Russian fossil fuels. Across Europe, countries have been streamlining permitting for renewable projects, and building solar and wind farms. Nuclear power is back in favor, with new power stations coming soon, and Germany extending the life of some older power plants (although it still intends to shutter them). “On balance, the energy crisis we’re experiencing now… is going to accelerate the clean energy transition,” said Jason Bordoff, dean of the Columbia Climate School, in The New York Times. “It’s probably going to have a negative impact on emissions in the near term, but a positive impact in the longer term.”
2 … but not in the developing world. Re-jigging a country’s energy system for renewables eventually pays off in many ways, but the up-front cost is steep, especially for poorer nations. Consultants McKinsey fear that a shift to domestic policies in the West (as well as high interest rates) might cause richer nations to fall even further behind climate commitments, which were already 20% below pledged levels before the invasion. Russia will also want to expand fossil fuel exports, and energy-intensive products like fertilizer, in markets outside Europe. Climate change is a global issue, and this widening decarbonization gap could be problematic.
3. US as the world’s natural gas pump? With Russian fossil fuels largely off the menu, Europe more than doubled imports of liquid natural gas (LNG) from the US in 2022. In this comprehensive summary from Energy Wire, the executive director for the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas predicted the American LNG imports into Europe would remain “pretty strong,” even when the war in Ukraine ends. That will be a defining climate moment for the US. It could either continue to build out LNG infrastructure and boost exports further, or choose the high road to renewables.
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What To Keep An Eye On
1. Climate reparations. At COP27 in November, Ukraine proposed a new tool for international diplomacy. It thinks emissions generated by conflict should be cataloged and attributed to the aggressors—a move that, if adopted, could put a higher economic and political price-tag on going to war. Ukraine had logged 2,200 cases of environmental damage, pegging soil damage costs at €11.9 billion ($12.6 billion) and air pollution costs at €25.5 billion ($27 billion).
2. The race for cheap green hydrogen. As well as scaling up solar power and domestic heat pumps, the EU’s energy transition plan calls for importing 10 million tons of low-carbon hydrogen by 2030, and producing the same amount within the bloc. The economics of deployment currently look extremely challenging, with new research from ETH Zürich calculating that green hydrogen heating systems would be up to three times more expensive than just moving to electric heat pumps. But new technologies are hopefully coming soon.
3. Declining emissions. The war in Ukraine, and the new focus on domestic energy security in Europe, caused BP to reduce forecasts for global emissions in 2030 by 3.7% and by 9.3% in 2050. It expects oil demand to be 5% lower and gas demand to have fallen by 6% by 2035, according to a report in The Guardian. Renewables projects should get a 5% bump over the same timeframe.
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