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OPINION: Making the right choices for the climate, even in a time of war

by Dean Cooper | @ClimateWWF | WWF International
Monday, 4 April 2022 00:00 GMT

A man walks past a burning gas pipeline that was hit during shelling from Russian positions in a neighbourhood in northern Kharkiv as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine, March 31, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Ukraine conflict has sent a ripple of change through the global energy sector. Our response can have profound implications for accelerating the energy transition 

Dean Cooper is WWF Global Energy Transition Lead

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its latest report, focused on rising global emissions and the solutions needed to mitigate climate change. But despite the significance of this global report, the fact is that all eyes will be on the war in Ukraine. 

Like others across the world, we at WWF are appalled by this escalating confrontation. Our hearts and thoughts are with all those in the impacted region. 

At the same time, the war in Ukraine has led to ripple effects across the world, particularly in the energy sector, complicating steady gains to address the climate crisis. 

We must heed the warnings of scientists, who tell us we have to reduce global emissions by at least 45% by the end of this decade - in just eight years - if we are to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. 

And so the choices we make now, and the way governments respond to the evolving energy crisis, will determine whether we succeed or fail.

Historically, income from fossil fuels has always been a key driver of Russia's economy, relying on Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. But following the war in Ukraine, many western countries have quickly declared their intent to downscale their reliance on Russia's energy exports. 

The risk however is that these countries replace supplies from Russia with other sources of oil and gas, potentially leading to increased fossil fuel production.

Countries may just encourage new investment in frontier markets such as the Arctic or African countries, or simply change to another supplier of fossil fuels. Only last week, the US announced plans to provide Liquified Natural Gas to Europe, replacing some supply that Europe was receiving from Russia.  

There is also a risk that politicians decide to extend the lifespan of existing coal-fired power plants, or delay the closure of nuclear power stations, rather than pursuing the options that have a climate benefit.

There is a glimmer of hope to the current energy crisis. 

Energy security is now a top priority in Europe and other parts of the world. This has brought many transformative energy opportunities to the fore, with politicians calling for clean energy responses such as accelerating renewable energy deployment, promoting electric vehicle take-up, increasing energy efficiency, and identifying ways to reduce energy demand. 

All of that means that we will need to resolve some related issues. They include disrupted global supply chains, availability of raw materials, and the legal frameworks needed to accelerate approvals and implementation of renewable energy at scale. Despite these challenges, renewables are increasingly recognised as the best option. 

Protecting nature in the course of building new energy infrastructure is also critical.

We need to ensure that new renewable energy systems are located outside sensitive conservation areas. Governments and businesses must commit to develop the recycling capacity of relevant resources while reducing the social and environmental impacts of mining.

None of this changes the fact that rapid renewable energy deployment, when carefully planned, is far less destructive to nature than fossil fuels. But governments and investors must be prepared to acknowledge and manage the trade-offs involved.

The war in Ukraine will cast a shadow over Europe for a long time to come, and its impacts will reach far beyond the energy sector. Our smart response must be to reinforce the global shift to clean energy solutions, and thereby reduce the worst impacts of climate change.

But choices made without considering the full consequences can also cause catastrophic damage to the natural environment that we all need in order to survive.  

Humanity cannot afford to take the wrong path.