Mar 14, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The climate spillover of Russia's war

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Russia's war on Ukraine could speed or slow the global transition to clean energy, with pressures already apparent in both directions.

Why it matters: Global CO2 emissions are at record highs, and need to plunge to keep the Paris Agreement goals within reach.

The invasion began as UN-convened scientists published a landmark report on the quickening pace and growing severity of climate change.

Zoom in: Here are ways the crisis could accelerate climate action.

1. European leaders are doubling down. The European Commission hopes to end reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2027 and plans to release a proposal in May.

Diversifying gas suppliers is a near-term priority, but the wider effort unveiled in broad strokes last week is also heavy on renewables, hydrogen, energy efficiency and more.

2. Clean energy as a weapon. The White House, many Democrats and environmentalists are pushing to translate Russian aggression into stronger deployment policies.

One thing to watch is the fate of the stalled push for legislation to greatly expand clean energy and electric car incentives.

3. High gasoline prices. With prices at record levels (albeit not when you adjust for inflation), electric cars could start to look more attractive for the plug-curious.

Yes, but: The crisis is also creating new obstacles.

1. There's a bandwidth problem. Climate has been pushed from the spotlight by the biggest war in Europe since World War II, on top of COVID and inflation.

2. Oil and gas have fresh political mojo. The industry and Republicans say high prices and Europe's reliance on Russia make a case for more U.S. leasing and LNG export approvals.

  • But that could lock in new fossil infrastructure for decades (here's a reminder that LNG is complicated on the climate front).
  • The White House backs more near-term oil production and LNG shipments, even as it pushes clean energy as a lasting fix.

3. Europe is burning more coal right now. Bloomberg reports that coal use at European power plants earlier this month was up 51% from a year ago amid high natural gas prices and efforts to isolate Vladimir Putin.

4. Russia is a key supplier of clean energy materials. Think nickel, copper and other minerals used in EVs and other clean tech.

  • The recent nickel price surge "has analysts and investors raising hard questions about automakers’ ambitious electric-vehicle programs," CNBC reports.

The big picture: Nobody really knows. Remember when COVID brought speculation that oil demand may have peaked forever? It's projected to surpass pre-pandemic levels this year.

  • "I have no idea how this kind of meta-crisis shakes up the U.S. energy landscape...if it kind of reverts back to 'drill, baby drill' or 'boy, it's time to get out of hydrocarbons,'" said Nikos Tsafos of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Andrew Freedman contributed reporting.

Go deeper