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How Global Wars and Sanctions Are Hobbling Climate Action

Europe was poised to lead on green energy. Then Putin attacked Ukraine. An excerpt from ‘A Map of the New Normal.’

Jeff Rubin 17 May 2024The Tyee

Jeff Rubin is an award-winning author and former chief economist at CIBC World Markets. His latest book is A Map of the New Normal: How Inflation, War and Sanctions Will Change Your World Forever.

[Editor’s note: Canadian economist and author Jeff Rubin has written five noted books exposing the tumultuous fragility of globalization and our energy future. An excerpt of his just-published latest, ‘A Map of the New Normal: How Inflation, War and Sanctions Will Change Your World Forever,’ is adapted here. Tyee editor David Beers will interview Rubin on May 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Capilano University.]

How has the sanctions war waged by the United States and its NATO allies against Russia and China impacted global efforts to halt the relentless rise in greenhouse gas emissions into a dangerously warming atmosphere?

Sanctions (and other forms of economic warfare like sabotaged pipelines) have triggered massive shifts in European energy consumption as countries have scrambled to find alternatives for Russian oil, gas and coal. And billions of dollars of new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, like the liquefied natural gas terminals being hastily constructed in Europe, will lock in those tectonic changes in energy supply for decades to come.

Instead of billions of euros being invested in new green energy projects as EU governments promised this decade, governments across Europe are instead investing billions of euros in new infrastructure that will commit their economies to the use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Officially though everything is fine. Governments from London to Brussels to Berlin even claim that the energy moves motivated by sanctions will actually hasten the transition to renewable energy and the ultimate achievement of a net-zero emissions economy. But such claims aside, the exact opposite is actually occurring.

As we quickly discovered policies designed to mitigate ongoing climate change quickly take a back seat to the need for energy security whenever voters start to wonder about whether they will be able to heat their homes in the winter or if the power will come on when they flick the light switch.

Instead of replacing Russian oil, gas and coal with renewables like wind and solar, Russian fossil fuels have been replaced for the most part by more expensive fossil fuels from elsewhere. Russian natural gas, once delivered through pipelines, has been replaced by more expensive and more emission-intensive liquefied natural gas and even coal, which is suddenly enjoying a renaissance in Europe’s power sector.

Combustion of coal, by far the dirtiest of the fossil fuels (with emissions 50 per cent greater than natural gas per unit of energy) is up over 20 per cent in Europe since the conflict in Ukraine broke out — the flip side of a nearly 20 per cent decline in natural gas consumption from the loss of Russian supply. The loss of Russian natural gas is forcing many EU countries to switch back to burning far more emission-intensive coal — reversing decades of world-leading environmental policy and practice. And the renaissance in European coal demand has come precisely at a time when many of the continent’s coal-fired power plants had been originally scheduled to close. Instead, mothballed plants are being readied to restart.

Nowhere are these disturbing reversals in energy policy more apparent than in Germany, far and away the EU’s largest economy and home to one of Europe’s most stringent environmental standards. Coal, which generates just under a third of the nation’s electricity, was slated to disappear entirely from the country’s energy mix by 2030 — a key condition if the country was to meet its much-heralded objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that year to 55 per cent below 1990 levels. But thanks to the loss of Russian natural gas through the sabotaged Nord Stream pipelines (and the closing of the country’s last remaining nuclear power plants) coal-fired power is posting an impressive comeback.

At least 20 coal-fired power plants are being either resurrected or extended beyond their scheduled closing dates to ensure that Germany will have enough power to replace what was previous provided by burning Russian natural gas. While Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government still stoically claims the country will meet its coal-free target by 2030, the German Environment Agency has already warned that it will no longer be possible to do so given the recent reversals in energy mix.

And it’s not just short-term environmental targets that are at risk. Thanks to new infrastructure spending to support those choices like the new LNG terminals and reopened coal power plants sprouting up like weeds, their impact on emissions will be felt for decades to come — unfortunately all in the wrong direction.

Germany is by no means the only EU country to rediscover its need for coal. Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Greece and Poland have also extended the operating life of coal plants that were previously slated to close. Similarly, the United Kingdom, also facing natural gas shortages and soaring power costs, has done the same, cancelling the scheduled closure of a number of coal-burning power stations. In fact, in December 2022, Britain’s Conservative government went so far as to approve the first new coal mine in the country in over three decades, anticipating growing demand from the nation’s power sector. All over Europe the goalposts have shifted dramatically when it comes to reducing GHG emissions.

And Europe is by no means the only continent where those goalposts have suddenly moved. American sanctions against China are having an equally detrimental effect on its efforts to reduce GHG emissions, despite the stated importance of that objective to the Biden administration. Sanctions imposed on Chinese solar panels have already compromised President Biden’s goal of decarbonizing America’s power grid and looming sanctions against Chinese car batteries could do the same for Washington’s zero-emission vehicle targets.

And all that LNG that America is so eagerly supplying Europe with to replace Russian gas isn’t made out of thin air. Emissions from U.S. LNG-producing facilities are up a staggering 81 per cent since the conflict in Ukraine began — or 18 million tonnes per year — the equivalent of the emissions from several large-scale coal-fired power plants.

In the face of a continually warming planet, will the United States and its EU allies dial back their world-leading emission reduction targets for fear of compromising their national security? Or as raging forest fires, devastating droughts and disastrous flooding become the new normal, are the U.S. and its EU allies prepared to allow their adversaries to dominate tomorrow’s clean energy markets even more then they dominate today’s fossil fuel markets?

We will see. But right now, amidst today’s global economic warfare, action to mitigate global climate change will just have to wait.

Adapted with permission from ‘A Map of the New Normal: How Inflation, War and Sanctions Will Change Your World Forever’ by Jeff Rubin, published by Penguin Random House Canada.  [Tyee]

Read more: Books, Politics, Environment

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