Feb 25, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Climate change gets pushed out of the spotlight

Illustration of earth out of the spotlight.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Climate change is no longer at the top of the agenda for world leaders and many executives, having been shoved aside due to the Russian war in Ukraine as well as COVID-19 and inflation.

Why it matters: The recent developments come at a hinge point for climate action, with the most ambitious Paris Agreement temperature target perilously close to slipping out of reach.

  • Studies show that the world only has about a decade to slash emissions enough to limit warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by 2100.
  • But emissions are still increasing from one year to the next.

Catch up fast: The global community emerged from the Glasgow Climate Summit in November with some momentum, but that momentum is fading with hope for an ambitious climate package in this Congress all but lost.

  • The Glasgow Climate Pact commits countries to move toward low emission sources of energy, including by reducing "unabated coal power." It also calls for more stringent emissions cuts in the 2020s, with countries coming back this year with new emissions targets.
  • Inflation has increasingly taken up political oxygen in Washington and other global capitals, along with the fast-spreading Omicron variant that's only now ebbing.
  • Against this backdrop, the Ukraine war is occupying world leaders' time, and the ongoing, large-scale Russian military action in Ukraine could knock climate much further down the priority list.
  • "Climate continues to face a very serious case of the urgent crowding out the important," Aron Kramer, president and CEO of BSR, the management consulting company, told Axios

Threat level: John Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy, warned last week that the crisis in Europe risks the world losing focus on the urgent tasks of driving emissions down and mobilizing financial resources from the private sector.

  • "We have to run a sprint to avoid near term tipping points and a marathon to reach mid-century goals to reduce CO2 emissions," he said in a speech in Cairo on Monday.

Zoom in: Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Climate Policy Lab at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said she is concerned the conflict in Europe will sap the momentum from climate action.

  • "The problem is that now is exactly the time that countries need to be converting their pledges in Glasgow into concrete actions and policies so that they can set their economies on a path toward net zero," she told Axios via email.

Between the lines: On the other hand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine could spur Europe to speed up efforts to become energy independent via renewables.

  • "The Russian invasion of Ukraine can only spur Europe’s decarbonization as it focuses afresh on efficiency, renewable energy and storage to speed its shift away from Russian gas," Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School and the former climate chief at the World Bank, told Axios via email.

What's next: On Monday, a major new U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment of climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability will be released. It is expected to contain new details of just how far behind we are in preventing the worst consequences of global warming.

  • Its message may be drowned out, though, this time by the sounds of artillery shells exploding in the heart of Europe.
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