What does the Russian invasion of Ukraine have to do with climate change?

June 27, 2022

What is happening in Ukraine?

On the 24th of February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, framing the invasion as a ‘military operation’ to ‘demilitarise and denazify’ Ukraine. Outside of Russia, however, the invasion has been internationally condemned as a war of aggression. The UN General Assembly demanded a full withdrawal of Russian forces and the International Court of Justice ordered Russia to suspend military operations.

Up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers died in the first 100 days of the war, and the BBC verified that 4,395 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, of which 275 were children. Russia has acknowledged the deaths of around 2,000 troops, but observers estimate that around 15,000 Russian troops have been killed.

The BBC recently reported that 7.4 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have become refugees. Today, Russia continues to bomb homes, schools and hospitals.

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A Ukrainian soldier stands near an apartment ruined from Russian shelling in Borodyanka, Ukraine, Wednesday, Apr. 6, 2022. / AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

What has this got to do with fossil fuels?

The Russian invasion itself is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, so why are people even mentioning climate change? Well, Russia is the world’s second largest natural gas producer, and the third largest oil producer so Russia is perpetually linked to fossil fuels and the climate impact associated with them.

According to the BBC, during the first 100 days of the war, Russia earned nearly $100bn (£82.3bn) from oil and gas exports. The West has levied a host of financial sanctions against Moscow, but Europe continues to pay about £400 million a day for natural gas. Fossil fuel sales subsidise the war and fund the killing of Ukrainian troops and civilians - the oil and gas sector accounts for 40% of Russia’s federal budget revenues, which continues to finance the war. In addition these nations are tied to Russian fuel: 50% of natural gas in Germany, 60% in Austria and 70% in Spain are purchased from Russia.

Fuel prices had already started to rise before the invasion, but as Russian oil is phased out, prices are pushed up. You’ve probably felt it at the pump, petrol is now 182.31 pence per litre, and it’s 188.05 pence per litre for diesel. The war has highlighted just how entwined European lives are in Russian oil and gas.

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Prices at a petrol station on the M6 in Cumbria, UK, at the start of June. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

How has Europe responded?

Since the invasion, the EU has imposed six packages of sanctions against Russia, including targeted individual, economic and diplomatic sanctions. In response to the global market disruption caused by the invasion, the European Commission presented the REPowerEU Plan.

REPowerEU is the European initiative to produce clean energy, diversify energy supplies and reduce greenhouse has emissions by 30% by 2030. As part of the plan, the EU wants to wean itself off Russian gas completely by this 2030 deadline. In the REPowerEU talks, renewables have taken centre stage, framed as the energy of freedom. An accelerated transition to renewables in the EU could ripple across the globe, in terms of skills, prices, technology and jobs.

The EU Commission is also planning to accelerate the rollout of heat pumps to heat homes with electricity, rather than gas. Simple initiatives are also taking off such as everyone turning down their heating by one degree, which will save 10 billion cubic metres of gas annually. In the coming twelve months, the heat pump project and the acceleration of green energy projects could realistically replace 15% of the gas used. Of course, neither of these will solve solve everything, but they are the start of an energy-efficient technology revolution in Europe, kick-started by the war./

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An outline of REPowerEU - the European plan to increase Europe's energy independence / Source

Does the reality match the promises?

To hit their green energy pledges, the EU would need to quadruple renewable installation by 2030. Despite this massive target, and a united front to reach it, there has also been a panicked response to the lack of energy security highlighted by the war. In 2017, Italy planned to phase-out coal by 2025, but as prices of gas have increased, Italy is considering reopening coal plants. Coal power plants emit huge amounts of CO2 relative to the amount of energy they produce and are consequently considered the dirtiest fossil fuel. If the decision to replace coal plants with gas power plants is reversed, the EU’s carbon emissions will spike by 100s of millions of tonnes of carbon per year. This response has been heavily criticised with the UN chief, António Guterres, warning against using coal as a solution and that it would lead to ‘sleepwalking to climate catastrophe’.

What is the rest of the world doing?

No matter what Europe does, it produces only 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, with other countries and regions having a larger impact respectively. In reaction to the Russian invasion, the US has banned the import of Russian oil, but rather than seeking greener alternatives, it has increased domestic production of oil. This year, the US has produced more oil than in Trump’s first year, and next year, it plans to produce more oil than ever before.

So then comes the question, if the West doesn’t buy Russian oil, does it stay in the ground? The simple answer is no. Russia’s supply will still be met by the world’s demand.

Russia will still be able to sell to others. Countries like China have plans to use natural gas for 12% of their total energy and so are a ready market for Russian exports. China still faces obstacles in receiving this fuel and so it won’t be as simple as switching distribution from West to East: Russia has eight fuel pipelines to Europe and only one to China meaning massive infrastructure investment is needed. A new pipeline would have to span thousands of kilometres, through icy Siberia, and the Gobi desert and it would take until 2029 to build. Furthermore, China would have to navigate the financial sanctions imposed on Russia, and watching events unfold in the EU has taught China how unreliable a single-supplier of energy imports can be. Fortunately, away from international pressure, China has pledged to move away from fossil fuels to improve domestic air and water pollution.

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The oil pipeline that runs from Russia through China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, shown in 2011. / Wang Jianwei/Xinhua/AP

What will happen moving forward?

The war in Ukraine is a humanitarian crisis that has forced countries across the world to reassess their reliance on Russian gas. The alternative of renewable energy offers clean, long-term energy security, and comes without the fear of funding armed conflict.

The war in Ukraine has sparked European nations into action with a tangible push to accelerate green energy plans, which could be exactly what the climate needs right now. On the other hand, a wave of panic is causing some EU states to scramble back to the coal pits. If the EU returns to dirtier fuel sources, and Russia still sells its gas to China or developing economies, then the already very difficult task of hitting pledged climate targets will only get harder.

The war in Ukraine has shocked the world, with millions displaced, and thousands killed. Collectively, nations need to act immediately to make sure that climate change doesn’t have an even greater impact.