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25 February 2022updated 24 Oct 2022 3:59pm

Will Russia’s war push back action on climate change?

If future geopolitical instability is to be contained, Ukraine’s acute crisis must not distract from the climate’s chronic threat.

By India Bourke

The terrible consequences of Russia’s assault on Ukraine are already in motion. Not only are death tolls starting to climb, but thousands of refugees are pouring across Ukraine’s borders. Meanwhile, in both Russia and the rest of Europe, it won’t be long before the two-way pain of economic sanctions hits already soaring living costs.

Yet even as these grim events play out, the underlying threat posed by climate change continues to build, begging the question: will confronting the environmental crisis be downgraded in the face of war’s more acute threat?

In the immediate term, addressing eastern Europe’s unfolding humanitarian and diplomatic disaster will inevitably be a priority. No one, for instance, could fail to sympathise with the Ukrainian scientists who withdrew this week from an approval session for the crucial UN climate report, citing the need to think about the “safety of our families” and their inability to concentrate on the wording of the summary.

[See also: Why Putin invaded Ukraine]

The effect on climate action, however, could also be more lasting. In light of the need to transition away from Russian gas, the UK’s Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has pressed the case for expanding “both” renewable capacity and North Sea oil and gas production. Without carbon capture and storage, the latter would be at odds with the government’s own commitment to reaching net-zero emissions and lock the UK into the volatile global gas market for longer.

Equally, if prolonged a war and sanctions require major expense from Nato countries, then the current cost-of-living crisis is likely to continue. This may in turn give succour to those who argue that slashed budgets for foreign aid and international climate finance can be used to make up the difference. 

Others, however, are adamant that such watering-down of climate ambition should not be allowed to happen. Climate change is a threat multiplier, and failing to support other vulnerable nations facing environmental and social breakdown will only store up future shocks.

“The last 48 hours have shown the devastating impacts of an unstable world,” warns Neil Morisetti, an associate fellow of the Chatham House think tank and a former commander of UK maritime forces. Deferring spending on climate issues would therefore “be a foolhardy, short-term measure which will impact on our long-term security”.

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The links between climate change, supply chains and conflict have become increasingly clear. In 2010, a heat wave in wheat-producing Russia and Ukraine reduced yields and pushed up the global price of bread – leading to an increase in poverty and civil unrest in places such as Egypt and Mozambique. Similarly, in 2007, the destabilising influence of an intense drought led the then UN secretary general to describe the conflict in Sudan and Darfur as the “first climate war”.

Such cascading risks are only likely to worsen. A certain amount of further warming is inevitable and numerous countries are already at the edge of their resilience. “If no help is received, there is going to be a catastrophe in Somalia,” which is witnessing the third consecutive season of failed rains, warns Walter Mawere from the NGO CARE International. “We are going to see a repeat of 2011, where we lost a quarter of a million people.”

Providing the financial support that vulnerable countries require will not be an easy case to make. It has been much easier for the UN to raise aid for acute disasters, such as flooding or conflict, as opposed to slower, “boiling frog” catastrophes such as drought, says Clare Shakya, a director at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Private investors also have little interest in the kind of small and least-developed nations which are often the hardest hit by the impacts of rising seas and increasingly extreme weather, she adds.

But it can be done. As Fionna Smyth, Christian Aid’s head of global policy and advocacy, points out, supplying climate finance is primarily a question of political will. “The $100bn [international] climate finance commitment, which rich countries had 12 years to come up with between them, is less than the expected budget of [the high-speed railway] HS2, which the UK alone is funding,” she notes.

Meanwhile, the need to avoid reliance on dictatorial petro-states will help justify the transition to net zero. “It is clear from the last 24 hours that fossil fuels are a threat multiplier too,” says Bernice Lee, Chatham House’s distinguished fellow for sustainability. “If rich countries fail to support vulnerable countries in tackling climate impacts and in their clean energy transition, it will only fuel a spiral of instability.”

Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, similarly calls for an increase in investment in clean energy: “Fossil fuel investment has dropped in recent years but there has not been an increase in the clean stuff.”

And climate aid spending can be beneficial for the trading interests and security of donor nations too. Helping north African nations to develop solar power could boost their own economies (and the migrants fleeing from further south), as well as provide energy to Europe via undersea cables, Morisetti suggests.

The need for such positive narratives will only grow with the release of next week’s UN climate report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The document will offer a harrowing catalogue of the impacts that lie ahead in a warming world, and discussions over its wording have been fraught.

The US is reportedly keen to avoid terms such as “losses and damages” in the text, since it could help shape negotiations at the COP27 climate conference later this year and put wealthy nations on the hook for providing further funding abroad.

Yet in a world facing the compound threats of climate change and geopolitical instability, ensuring that developing nations feel supported by rich democratic countries has perhaps never been needed more.

[See also: London’s response to Vladimir Putin is pathetically inadequate]

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