From a geopolitical standpoint, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wholly unprovoked attack on Ukraine has had several consequences he never expected. It transformed his country into an international pariah state, with the Russian economy now deservedly suffering proportionally to the degree it inflicts more pain and hardship on the Ukrainian lands and people. His rotten, cruel war has also vastly strengthened NATO and revealed just how weak and ill-prepared the much-vaunted Russian military actually was.
But one unintended consequence of his massive folly will probably be the most painful of all for Russia: Spurring a marked acceleration of alternative, cleaner forms of energy, according to a report just released by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
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The IEA is the world’s most authoritative forecast of global energy trends, and its annual report points to a significant shift in energy planning by the world’s most developed countries. The shift is spurred by higher fuel prices resulting from Russia’s disruption of global energy markets, most notably in fossil fuel production. As reported by Brad Plumer, writing for The New York Times, Putin, as leader of the leading natural gas exporter in the world, has managed to accomplish what climate scientists and activists have unsuccessfully lobbied for over the past 20 years: Created a peak target in fossil fuel consumption worldwide, and driven a more rapid shift to renewables and other cleaner technologies such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
One major reason is that many countries have responded to soaring prices for fossil fuels this year by embracing wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power plants, hydrogen fuels, electric vehicles and electric heat pumps. In the United States, Congress approved more than $370 billion in spending for such technologies under the recent Inflation Reduction Act. Japan is pursuing a new “green transformation” program that will help fund nuclear power, hydrogen and other low-emissions technologies. China, India and South Korea have all ratcheted up national targets for renewable and nuclear power.
“It’s notable that many of these new clean energy targets aren’t being put in place solely for climate change reasons,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director, in an interview. “Increasingly, the big drivers are energy security as well as industrial policy — a lot of countries want to be at the leading edge of the energy industries of the future.”
As Plumer points out, the IEA forecast does not alter the fact that many countries are responding to higher energy costs this year by increased coal consumption and by relying on domestic stores of natural gas and other fossil fuels, all in an effort to make the coming winter months more financially bearable (and less politically combustible) for their populations. On the positive side, however, the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions forecast at the outset of Putin’s war has turned out to be substantially less than initially feared, as many nations responded by deploying renewable systems more rapidly than anticipated. The report also notes that “Energy markets and policies have changed as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not just for the time being, but for decades to come.”
And as IEA Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol said in a statement:
“The environmental case for clean energy needed no reinforcement. But the economic arguments in favour of cost-competitive and affordable clean technologies are now stronger—and so too is the energy security case. Today’s alignment of economic, climate and security priorities has already started to move the dial towards a better outcome for the world’s people and for the planet.”
Still, as the IEA report observes, the near-term impact of Russia’s war will be devastating for the developing world, with poorer countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh hit the hardest, due to the diversion of existing limited natural gas stores to the wealthier countries that can afford to pay for them. Nor does the projected $2 trillion annual global investment in cleaner energy sources by 2030 change the fundamental fact that the planet continues to heat up at an unprecedented rate, due to the existing consumption of fossil fuels.
And as Plumer reported with Nadia Popovich in 2018, also for The Times:
The Earth has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 19th century. Now, a major new United Nations report has looked at the consequences of jumping to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.
Half a degree may not sound like much. But as the report details, even that much warming could expose tens of millions more people worldwide to life-threatening heat waves, water shortages and coastal flooding. Half a degree may mean the difference between a world with coral reefs and Arctic summer sea ice and a world without them.
Nations have delayed curbing their greenhouse gas emissions for so long that warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) is now all but inevitable. At current rates of warming, the world will likely cross the 1.5 degree threshold between 2030 and 2052, well within the lifetime of most adults and children alive today.
The report also highlights the possibility that even modest amounts of warming may push both human societies and natural ecosystems past certain thresholds where sudden and calamitous changes can occur.
To avoid “the most dire and irreversible risks from climate change, such as widespread crop failures or ecosystem collapse,” emissions would have to be cut far more sharply—by (at least) doubling the amount annually invested in clean energy—by the end of this decade, advises Dr. Birol.
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The agency also warns that the high prices caused by a temporary reduction in fossil fuel production could prompt many countries to disavow increasing cleaner energy sources because of internal political pressures. As Plumer summarizes:
There is still a possibility that soaring energy prices could produce social unrest and pushback against climate and clean energy policies in some countries. While the report concluded that climate change policies are not chiefly responsible for the spike in prices — instead, it notes that renewable power and home weatherization efforts have actually blunted the impact of energy shocks in many regions — there is always the risk that governments could feel pressured to change course, Dr. Birol said.
This, of course, is the situation looming in the U.S. as the Republican Party, which essentially operates as the political arm of the fossil fuel industry, has capitalized on voter discontent with higher home energy costs and gas prices in its effort to retake control of Congress. Thanks to Putin’s war, the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed a $2 trillion windfall in excess profits over 2021. Much of that money is currently being poured into “dark money” political ads, attempting to convince Americans to preserve and increase those profits by voting Republican in 2022—even as Russia’s disastrous invasion has provided the world with a unique window of opportunity to stave off the worst effects of global warming.
Thus, as many Americans incensed by higher gas prices caused by Putin’s war rush angrily into the voting booth, goaded by the GOP to express their fury by voting red, the irony is that they’re also voting to preserve the status of the fossil fuel companies who continue to dictate our country’s energy and climate future, even as the rest of the world has begun to reject that future, thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
No doubt, Vladimir Putin certainly appreciates the irony.
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