Opinion: The net-zero transition just got harder – and more urgent
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is a paradigm shift for the energy transition and global climate action. Continued progress will be best served by near-term appeals to self-interest, writes Energy Monitor’s Mark Nicholls.
It is a very long way from Glasgow to Kyiv, and it seems a very long time ago that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the UK Parliament that the COP26 talks, which concluded in the Scottish city last November, had “succeed[ed] in keeping 1.5°C alive”. However, events in Ukraine promise profound and long-term impacts on the global effort to address climate change. It is imperative that advocates for climate action make a cold-eyed assessment of the changed landscape.
Vladimir Putin’s aggression has implications much more immediate and far-reaching than the success or otherwise of the Paris Agreement. Many Ukrainians and Russians will be killed. Despite the increasing isolation of Russia’s economy, growth, inflation and sentiment will all be negatively affected. Energy prices are already soaring.
High prices, low adoption
In theory, and over the longer term, high fossil energy prices help to support the financial attractiveness of clean energy generation. In the near term, high gas prices are proving a boon for coal-fired power generation. They also make it more difficult for energy users to find the cash to invest in cleaner alternatives.
High energy prices also provide grist for those who argue that the costs of the net-zero transition represent an additional and unnecessary burden at a time when many households and businesses are struggling to pay their energy bills.
These arguments tend to come from politicians and commentators who have historically been on the wrong side of climate science, opposed to constraints on corporate polluters, and unwilling to follow the logic of their confessed concern for the poor by, for example, supporting higher benefits.
However, in a time of inflation and cost-of-living pressures around the world, their arguments will find a ready audience. The ability of the Brexit ultras to transform a fringe obsession into national policy, or the zealots of the Tea Party to torpedo climate legislation in the US, shows that motivated minorities can wield disproportionate influence.
Public support for action on climate change has never been higher. This is partly in response to evidence in front of people’s eyes of a fast-accelerating climate crisis. It is partly a response to the unprecedented policy focus on the subject in the run-up to COP26. However, evidence from earlier peaks in public concern suggests that support can be soft: it is not difficult to foresee an economic downturn or heightened international tensions pushing the issue down the agenda.
A mortal blow to internationalism
More broadly, conflict of this magnitude makes international cooperation on an issue such as climate change almost impossible. Putin’s decision to employ force as a tool is merely the most extreme expression of the tendency among authoritarian-inclined strongmen away from international cooperation and towards a nationalistic, zero-sum view of international relations. These are not good conditions in which to make progress on a global challenge such as climate change.
So how should those countries that appreciate the ongoing threat posed by global warming respond? First, Russia’s actions strengthen the argument for transitioning away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible on energy security grounds. Admittedly, this dates back to the first Arab oil embargo of 1973, but it bears repeating.
Second, the case for the net-zero transition must increasingly be made, as much as possible, in terms of narrow, short-term self-interest. Renewable energy is already cheaper than most other forms of generation in most markets. The advantages it offers in terms of energy security and resilience must also be stressed.
So too must renewables' ability to create jobs, domestic economic benefits and international competitiveness. This should extend to substantial investment in domestic manufacturing capacity. While globalised supply chains may offer considerable efficiencies, it would be a grave mistake to outsource industries that will be vital for our security to countries such as China, which might choose to restrict exports for political purposes. This will make the net-zero transition more expensive but is perhaps an unavoidable cost imposed by the realities of a less secure world.
Action at the border
Third, countries with progressive climate policies must be prepared to use trade policy to protect their economies from those countries that refuse to take action. Carbon pricing is the right tool to penalise polluting activities and help support the economics of cleaner energy and industrial processes. However, we cannot afford to export energy production, manufacturing capacity and the associated employment to jurisdictions that seek to free-ride on other countries’ efforts. The EU must pursue its carbon-border adjustment mechanism.
Fourth, advocates for climate action have to continue to make their long-term case but also be honest and realistic about the challenges we face. Everything is going to be more difficult in a world where major players take, again in Boris Johnson’s words, a “Hobbesian” view of relations between nations. The net-zero transition will be more expensive, and likely slower. Its continued progress will be best served by appeals to near-term self-interest rather than longer-term appeals to the brotherhood of mankind.