Ukraine war threatens global heating goals, warns UN chief | Climate crisis

The war in Ukraine risks putting global targets on the climate out of reach, the UN secretary general has warned, if countries respond to Russia’s aggression by increasing their use of fossil fuels.

António Guterres said the aim of limiting global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the goal set out at the Cop26 UN climate summit last year, was in peril as countries sought alternatives to Russian oil and gas supplies.

“The fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine risks upending global food and energy markets, with major implications for the global climate agenda. As major economies pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy to replace Russian fossil fuels, short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5C,” he warned, in a video address to a conference on sustainability run by the Economist newspaper in London on Monday.

“Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use,” he went on. “This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Europe is dependent on Russia for 40% of its gas, with Germany’s reliance even higher at 60%. The EU is embarking on a plan to cut its use of Russian gas by two-thirds this year, and eliminate it in future years.

As part of that plan, as well as expanding renewable energy generation, EU member states are seeking fossil fuels from other nations, such as gas from Qatar and oil from Saudi Arabia. Some may also consider an increase in coal-fired power generation.

Faced with high petrol prices, the US is also seeking to expand its imports of oil, even considering countries previously regarded as pariah states, such as Venezuela and Iran. Domestic US oil and gas production from fracking and drilling is also set to ramp up. Around the world, oil and gas companies see a bonanza from the ongoing crisis, driven by first the rebound after Covid-19 and now by countries moving imports away from Russia.

In the UK the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is considering a cut in fuel duty, to offset some of the price increases that have taken petrol near record highs. Critics warned such a cut would have little impact on poorer households.

Guterres said turning to fossil fuels would only store up further problems. “As current events make all too clear, our continuing reliance on fossil fuels puts the global economy and energy security at the mercy of geopolitical shocks and crises,” he said. “Instead of hitting the brakes on the decarbonisation of the global economy, now is the time to put the pedal to the metal towards a renewable energy future.”

The UN secretary general acknowledged widespread concern among climate experts that the progress on display at the Cop26 summit was in danger of dissipating under the pressure of soaring energy prices and greenhouse gas emissions.

The International Energy Agency found that annual carbon dioxide emissions from energy jumped by 6% last year to their highest levels in history, as economies rebounded from the Covid-19 pandemic. The “green recovery” that many governments promised from the crisis has not materialized.

Guterres warned: “If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5C goodbye. Even 2C may be out of reach. That would be a disaster.”

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