May 20, 2022 As the Ukraine War Rages, Western Nations Face a Climate Crossroad

Ukrainians demonstrate in front of the Lukoil Headquarters on May 13, 2022 in Vilvoorde, Belgium. Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
Ukrainians demonstrate in front of the Lukoil Headquarters on May 13, 2022 in Vilvoorde, Belgium. Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

In an emotional plea this week, members of Ukraine’s environmental community, many of whom fled their homes as bombs fell around them, urged world leaders to halt the flow of Russian fuel exports. Failing to do so only exacerbates the worsening climate crisis, they said, and continues to “fund Putin’s war machine” at the cost of thousands of Ukrainian lives.

“Today, children and families are losing their future and their lives every day in Ukraine because of energy dependency on fossil-fuel dictators in the middle of the 21st century,” Ilyess El Kortbi, a 25-year-old Ukrainian climate activist, said at a Tuesday press conference as he visibly held back tears. “The system is broken; the oil embargo has done nothing.”

El Kortbi, who escaped his hometown of Kharkiv just before Russian troops arrived, has been calling on European countries to stop buying fossil fuels from Russia ever since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. On Tuesday, the Fridays For Future organizer expressed shock that now months into the war, he’s still making the same pleas.

The moment highlighted a particularly arduous week in an already difficult series of months for Western nations, whose leaders now find themselves at a major crossroads as skyhigh energy prices and an over-dependence on Russian fossil fuels threaten to derail global efforts to mitigate climate change. Many nations are struggling to find ways to punish Russia without jeopardizing their own pledges under the Paris Agreement. 

The United States and the European Union have already implemented increasingly severe sanctions on Moscow, seeking to cripple President Vladimir Putin’s largest source of income—coal, oil and natural gas exports. But Russia’s war quickly complicated global geopolitics, turning record-high oil prices and surging inflation into major political liabilities. As a result, weaning Europe off of Russia’s ubiquitous fossil fuels has proven far more difficult to accomplish. 

On Monday, the EU’s effort to impose a new round of sanctions against the Kremlin, including a ban on Russian oil, was blocked by Hungary, one of the bloc’s 27 member-nations that has benefited significantly from cheap Russian energy imports.

That news comes just a week after the International Energy Agency published a report showing that despite the severe sanctions, Russia still earns roughly $20 billion every month in oil sales. In fact, Russian oil exports actually increased in April, the report said, bringing in 50 percent more in revenue that month compared to last year due to soaring oil prices. That’s because declines in Western nations were mostly offset by increased purchases in Asia and the Middle East, including from India, China and Turkey, IEA’s researchers concluded.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Ukrainian environmental groups that have been tracking Russian exports also blamed European countries, who they say should have acted more quickly to stem the flow of Russian imports. During the first two months of the war, the European Union imported more than $52 billion worth of Russian fuels, according to the groups.

“The EU is absolutely central as the buyer and the enabler of Putin’s regime,” Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst for the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said at the press event, which was streamed online. “Germany is the largest single buyer, followed by the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Turkey and France.”

Even the United States, which hardly imports any Russian fuels at all, has struggled to agree on what the war in Ukraine should mean for future energy policy. President Biden, who campaigned on quickly transitioning the U.S. to renewable sources, has balked on major environmental goals as the war drove gasoline and other energy costs to all-time highs. That includes Biden agreeing to speed up new domestic oil and gas drilling to increase shipments to Europe, a move that many energy experts have said endangers the administration’s goal of slashing U.S. emissions in half by 2030.

On Wednesday, the EU’s executive arm—the European Commission—announced it would move forward with plans to abandon at least some Russian energy and replace it with renewables, despite Hungary’s objection. While a ban on Russian oil remains stalled, the bloc still plans to halt all coal imports by August and said it would reduce demand for Russian natural gas by two-thirds by the end of the year. The commission also introduced a new $315 billion spending package, dubbed REPowerEU, that aims to streamline the construction of new solar, wind and other carbon-free energy sources.

On Thursday, U.S. officials announced that the Biden administration was also considering new measures to further choke Russian oil revenues. Those proposals include imposing a price cap on Russian oil, which would punish foreign buyers if they flout U.S. restrictions, preventing them from doing business with American companies and partner nations.

Still, climate activists remain wary as they watch the war in Ukraine unfold. Many wonder if the situation will be the spark that finally galvanizes a widespread global transition to clean energy, or if it will become yet another moment in history when the countries most responsible for the climate crisis fail to address it because of short-term national interests. Just last year, climate hawks railed against Western countries that poured trillions of dollars into pandemic relief packages that did very little to boost renewable energy while propping up the fossil fuel industry. One study, which looked at the 30 largest economies, found that of the $17.2 trillion so far spent on economic recovery measures globally, $4.8 trillion would do “more harm than good” to the environment, while only $1.8 trillion was seen as beneficial.

In some ways, the week’s slow negotiations are casting a long shadow on the upcoming global climate talks, including an international climate conference being held in Sweden in June and the highly anticipated COP27 climate summit in Egypt this November.

But El Kortbi said the moment also presents a chance to show the world’s leaders that they can be replaced if they don’t start taking the climate crisis more seriously. At the June talks, which take place the same week as World Environment Day, Fridays For Future is already planning a major global climate protest.

“People vote for leaders they trust,” he said. “We can’t let our leaders fail us again.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox Tuesday.

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