The Cooperative Society Newsletter
May 2022, Issue 35
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
Putin’s war on Ukraine and the fight against global warming
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is very different from the war on global warming. In fact, Russia’s ”special military operation” in Ukraine has resulted in an increase in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions that may last for years.
But there are lessons from the war in Ukraine that can be applied to the fight against global warming. Putin grossly miscalculated several critical factors when he attempted to wrest control over his neighbor to the west. He overestimated the power of his own military. He underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainian people to defend their country, and the extent to which Ukraine’s democratic allies would support it with arms, humanitarian aid, and severe economic sanctions against Russia.
As of this writing, the eventual outcome of the brutally and ineptly fought invasion remains unclear, but it appears that the main loser will be Russia’s economic, political, and military well-being at home and its prestige around the world.
The primary takeaways as they relate to climate change? Don’t give up against what many regard as insurmountable odds. And, don’t underestimate the ability of like-minded countries to act quickly and decisively in the face of a shared threat.
How can we develop a winning climate change strategy for the future?
Given the world’s poor track record on climate change to date, how can we develop a winning strategy for the future? If we define success in the fight against global warming as keeping the increase in the global temperature below 1.5°C above preindustrial levels (a goal set in the 2015 Paris Agreement), we are likely to lose that battle in the next decade. But that means we need to revise our goals, not bemoan our near-term failure.
Most countries and corporations in the world are not taking the climate crisis seriously enough. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further taken our eyes off the prize – in Western Europe because of the restrictions on Russian gas, oil, and coal, and in other parts of the world as countries scramble to ramp up fossil fuel production and sourcing to compensate for the sanctions against Russia.
Although a number of European Union countries are attempting to increase their development of renewable energy resources, especially to replace dependence on Russian natural gas, these efforts will take years. In the meantime, fossil fuel prices and new domestic and international investments in natural gas and other fossil fuels are going up steeply.
The United States is a world leader in this effort to shore up fossil fuel access as part of the enforcement of the sanctions. This role, however, is setting back efforts to reduce carbon emissions. But these efforts were already in trouble before Putin’s misguided war.
In addition to Trump’s climate change denialism and the woeful record of his administration in addressing problems of global warming, the U.S. is failing in several ways to move forward on its climate goals. The Build Back Better initiative, which contained a number of clean energy components, still hasn’t seen the light of day largely due to the opposition of Senator-cum-coal-baron Joe Manchin. Despite its absurdity, the U.S. and other countries are still subsidizing fossil fuel companies. To top things off, the U.S. Commerce Department has reduced new solar installations in the country in 2022 because of bumbling bureaucratic efforts to prevent solar panel dumping by China and other Asian countries.
In the meantime, China, India, and other coal producing countries continue to ramp up new, and expand existing, coal mines, despite the long-term carbon emissions that will result.
If this list isn’t bad enough, recent scientific analyses of satellite images indicate that the world is emitting far more of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, than previously thought. These emissions are another major example setting back the world’s faltering attempt to curtail global warming.
In sum, not only are we likely to fall short of the 1.5ºC goal for limiting CO2 emissions, we’re actually making that goal less attainable through our lackluster efforts to-date.
Toward a revised climate change strategy
We need both to reconfigure our goals to make them attainable and also to figure out a revised strategy for success. That strategy needs to fend off the self-destructive actions that many of our political and corporate leaders are taking that are likely to lead to failure.
So let’s reassess where the world is now on reducing global warming.
- In terms of technology and cost-effectiveness, we are doing very well. Solar, wind, energy storage, electrified transportation, and energy-efficiency improvements have all become cost competitive with, or less expensive than, fossil fuels in the past decade. Hydrogen-based energy sources – important keys to long-distance land, water, and air-based travel and shipping – are on track to be cost competitive soon.
- The big bottlenecks that remain are inertia, perceived threats to corporate profitability, and governments that are unwilling, unable, or too corrupt to take the climate crisis seriously.
- Because of a variety of domestic political factors in the United States, the European Union is likely to be the world leader in the fight against global warming in this decade.
- We need to recognize that the voluntary “nationally determined contributions (NDCs)” – the cornerstones of the Paris Agreement – are failing to reduce global warming quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe. The reason for this lies in the word “voluntary.” Countries are not being held accountable in the formulation or implementation of their NDCs. Thus, many of them have very weak strategies and goals for reducing carbon emissions and, in any case, there are no consequences for failure to achieve their goals.
The major conclusion to be drawn from these above four points is: that the NDCs need to be backed up by both sanctions to major polluters and by more generous incentives to developing countries if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.
The European Union is leading the way on climate change
The European Parliament is in the process of strengthening its environmental commitments to include measurable and enforceable carbon reductions related to road transport and buildings. In conjunction with these actions, it is also establishing a Social Climate Fund, the purpose of which is to alleviate the burden of high energy costs on low-income households and within lower income member states. By the end of June, there is an excellent chance that these historic changes will be incorporated into the EU’s climate policy. This “Fit for 55” policy, intended to “reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels,” has the potential to become an international model for improving climate change performance and income-based fairness.
Accountability and incentives
As mentioned above regarding the NDCs, there are virtually no consequences for countries’ failures to meet their goals, and very limited incentives to assist poorer countries to achieve theirs.
As the EU initiative mentioned above indicates, much can be done both to strengthen sanctions and to increase incentives. For example:
The Paris Agreement already contains a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries carry out programs to reduce carbon emissions. The main problem is that the program is grossly underfunded.
In terms of sanctions, there are a number of ways to hold corporations and countries accountable for their carbon emissions. Within countries and blocs of countries, there are carbon taxes and/or “cap-and-trade” programs that limit emissions and charge scofflaws for exceeding their limits.
Among a number of countries, border-adjustment taxes are being developed (again, with the EU leading the way). These taxes charge tariffs to countries that use “dirty energy” to produce export products. The tariffs can be used to assist “clean” domestic companies or for other clean energy-related purposes.
Bringing us back to Putin’s war, economic sanctions can be used against countries that are major carbon polluters. Some of the sanctions against Russia are being used in this way. European Union members, the U.S., and several other countries are implementing bans on all fossil fuels from Russia and accelerating the development of clean-energy alternatives. In many cases, the implementation of these sanctions will take several years to put fully into place, but the eventual economic and environmental impacts will be profound.
There are other major climate-polluting countries – China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan and others – for which carbon-pollution sanctions should be considered. Imposing such sanctions may not be easy, but when the environmental health of the planet is at stake, they should definitely be put on the table for consideration.
It’s not acceptable to be on the sidelines or to be carrying out activities that increase global warming. In one way or another, we all need to pay for getting climate change under control. Developing countries should receive incentives and be rewarded for taking active steps to reduce global warming. Highly polluting countries should be financially sanctioned for their carbon emissions. Funds collected from such sanctioning should be used to pay for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.