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How the war in Ukraine stalled action on the climate

Governments are pursuing energy security over emissions reduction.

By Samir Jeraj

Before becoming Ukraine’s deputy minister for the environment, Irna Stavchuk had spent more than a decade campaigning for action on the climate.

Working at NGOs, she tells Spotlight: “We were [saying to] global governments that you should spend less on military equipment and more on climate change, because that’s the real threat for the future. But this argument is not valid any more.”

Stavchuk joined the government in 2019. She and her colleagues in the environment ministry had been working “extremely hard” to update Ukraine’s nationally determined contributions (NDC) – climate plans mandated by the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. In July 2021, Ukraine approved its NDC “after a lot of fights with other ministries and businesses”.

It was “much more ambitious than all the previous kinds of targets before”, Stavchuk says. Ukraine raised its target to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent by 2030; the previous target had been 40 per cent. This earned them the praise of the UN, with Manal Fouani of the UN Development Programme describing Ukraine as “a model for other countries”.

The environment ministry was working on implementing those plans when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. “We jumped into humanitarian issues, so all the regular work that we had been doing before, it was just stopped,” Stavchuk says. Months on from the start of the invasion, the ministry is resuming work on the climate, its policy informed by the changing geopolitics.

[See also: Who is to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia?]

Before the war, Stavchuk says, Ukraine’s climate policies were driven by the need to modernise infrastructure, make industry competitive and improve the well-being of citizens. Now the urgent issue of energy security is the main concern. On the global stage, Ukraine and its allies have pressed for Russia to be excluded from international climate and environmental mechanisms. “They cannot pretend that they care about [the] environment, and constructively participate while they put bombs on Ukrainian cities,” Stavchuk says. Russia and its ally Belarus have already been expelled from the Umbrella Group, a negotiating bloc of non-EU developed countries. It is not easy, however, to exclude Russia from UN processes such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), particularly as it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

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Indeed, energy security has become the priority for governments worldwide. “It’s a very, very difficult international environment right now to make substantial progress,” says Connie Hedegaard, the former Danish environment minister, European commissioner for climate action, and chair of the 2009 Copenhagen Cop negotiations. Under her tenure in government, Denmark was the first country in the world to commit to a reduction in energy use, introducing policies to expand renewables, levy green taxes and support new technologies.

Hedegaard is concerned about whether the conflict will further strain the US’s relationship with China, and the Biden administration’s efforts to pass meaningful domestic policy on the climate. “I saw for many years how the US and China sort of played this game that I call ‘after you’,” she says. While much has changed, that relationship can now also be described as “very, very difficult”.

“What one would hope for is really that despite all the other challenges in that relationship, they would decide that they still want to have a constructive dialogue going on in the climate field, because it is [of] mutual benefit,” adds Hedegaard.

Part of the problem is “overload on the plate of decision-makers”, she says. “It’s about the war; yes, it’s about supply chains; in China, it’s very much still about Covid and the lockdown; and then it’s inflation.”

[See also: How the BBC became a “football” in the climate change culture wars]

Of course, global emergencies have trumped climate action before. Hedegaard recounts how the 2008 financial crisis derailed international efforts on the climate. This was followed by the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, but the election of Donald Trump as US president once again threatened progress on the climate agenda. And now the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine have once again pushed global warming down the priority list.

“It may not be because of a lack of will, but simply the ability to cope with all these big challenges in parallel, and at the same time,” says Hedegaard, who adds: “I just think that an extreme effort is needed by leaders.”

She is optimistic, however, that there is more momentum across civil society and business for climate action today than when she led Cop negotiations in 2009.

“I think that there is some hope there that business understands, and that more and more investors start to understand that climate change is for real,” she says, citing advances in transportation, the circular economy and in environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures. “There is a chance now that we have come to the point where more and more leaders understand that however they are going to address the other challenges, they cannot neglect climate.”

Anthony Froggatt, deputy director of the Environment and Society Programme at the Chatham House think tank, points out that there is also a question mark over how the conflict in Ukraine will affect the G20, whose members represent 80 per cent of carbon emissions globally. The economic bloc played an important role in setting the “mood music” for Cop26 last year, with “powerful statements” from member states.

Another direct impact will be on climate finance, and the extent to which countries that are now increasing spending on their militaries will be able to meet commitments to adapting to and mitigating climate change. World leaders are due to meet in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for Cop27 in November. “It is absolutely imperative,” says Hedegaard, “that the developed countries… deliver on their financial pledges” at that meeting.

Beyond this is the technical cooperation needed to develop new technologies. “Russia is important to some degree in terms of minerals, and so boycotts may make a difference,” Froggatt says.

There is concern, too, that Russia’s international isolation will bring Beijing closer to the Kremlin, which will impact global climate efforts. Froggatt says that China is “absolutely fundamental” when it comes to the development and deployment of new technologies for countering the climate crisis.

The other much-discussed knock-on effect is the impact on Europe’s energy transition as it reduces its reliance on Russian fossil fuels, forcing it to look elsewhere for sources of power. While some see the conflict leading to a shift away from Russian fossil fuels and hence faster decarbonisation in the long term, Froggatt warns about the shortterm effects.

“It’s not all about renewables and efficiency; it’s also about the EU getting more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from other parts of the world,” he says, pointing out that tankers carrying LNG have started to be diverted towards Europe from other parts of the world. That hoovering up of energy supplies, together with rising food prices, is likely to create stresses across markets and could lead, for example, to countries falling back on using coal and perhaps setting less ambitious climate goals. “This is really hugely significant in terms of people’s ability to feed and heat themselves, get around, and therefore, potentially, political stability,” Froggatt says.

Back in Ukraine, Stavchuk and her team are starting to think about the bleak task of post-war reconstruction. Near Kyiv, there is discussion of restoring the wetlands where a Soviet-era dam was opened up at the start of the war in a desperate move to block the Russian army’s advance on the capital. Stavchuk’s team is still participating in international environmental and climate events, but despite the aforementioned attempts to have Russia expelled from various forums, they still often find themselves across the table from the Russians, who, she says, use such meetings as a platform to justify the war or dismiss it. “It’s very clear that nobody believes what they say, and they probably say it for their own audience,” Stavchuk says.

The conflict has already led to dramatic scenes elsewhere in the field of global diplomacy. At the UN in March, diplomats walked out of a Human Rights Council meeting during a speech by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Meanwhile, representatives from the US, Canada and UK walked out of a meeting with the G20 in April, and US President Joe Biden reportedly wants Russia out of the global economic group.

“I don’t think we should be naïve,” says Hedegaard. The war “will pollute the climate field”, particularly the longer the conflict persists. “My hope,” she continues, “would then be that… all these different things that we have initiated over the recent years will still help us to keep momentum.”

[See also: The pop stars tackling climate change]

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