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The current war between Russia and Ukraine is probing a breakaway to the established dependency of Europe on Russia’s oil and gas. Since oil reserves in the North Sea dried up, Russia provides 38% of Europe’s natural gas. Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas for its energy matrix is a geopolitical concern for the continent which now comes into sharp focus because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it also underscores Europe’s urgent need to tackle climate change more aggressively, and may be just the opportunity for the continent to engage on this climate challenge.
Climate scientists agree that society’s persistent dependency on natural gas is delaying efforts to stop climate change and hindering our necessary passage to energy strategies which promote more renewable energy sources and less reliance on fossil fuel. The prime element of natural gas is methane, and according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), author of the Recent Global Methane Assessment, this potent greenhouse gas is 86 times more polluting to the climate than CO2. Methane also has a more intense and short term impact on the atmosphere (about 10-20 years) whereas CO2 emissions impact the climate over hundreds of years, and so reducing methane emissions quickly makes climate sense.
According to IPCC reports, global warming is accelerating at an uncontrollable rate. Scientists have established a limit to just how much we can allow the Earth to warm. That limit is 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Any further warming than that and the impacts of climate change will be devastating for the planet. If we don’t reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions soon, global warming will likely increase beyond the 1.5°C threshold and scientists say that this climate deterioration may be irreversible. Because methane is so potent as a greenhouse gas (86 times more than CO2) reducing methane in the short term is the fastest way to keep global temperature to 1.5°C and it also has immediate positive impacts on the health of the most vulnerable communities affected by poor air quality.
Cognisant of the importance of methane emissions to climate change and the enormous potential to stop climate change through reduced methane emissions, governments at the International Climate Conference in Glasgow (COP26), made a pledge to cap methane emissions 30% by 2030. The agreement aims to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector as well as from emissions from waste and agriculture. Releasing Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, is hence a great opportunity to work towards achieving this goal.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, recently mentioned that the Ukraine-Russia crisis is a favorable occasion to increase investments in renewable energies. Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser, indicated: “Reducing Russian gas reliance is a huge climate and moral imperative that Europe must prioritize.”.
Immediately following the Russian invasion, Germany was quick to act on this two-fold opportunity. The most important source of Germany’s energy is Russian natural gas. In the midst of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, Germany suspended a new pipeline project called, Nord Stream 2 that would have doubled Russian natural gas exported to Europe, a step that not only helps reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian fossil fuel, but also an important step towards achieving necessary methane emissions reduction targets by 2030 to quickly slow climate change.
Additionally, during the period of the conflict in Ukraine, Germany’s minister Robert Habeck pointed out: “Strategically, it is the right thing to do, not only to protect the climate but also to increase the resilience of the German economy.”
The COVID -19 pandemic showed us that we are capable of changing our living standards and habits in profound ways and that we can take the bold steps necessary to fundamentally change social behavior and tackle crisis situations. Slowing global warming is possible but we must act now if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In order to have a livable planet, backing out of fossil fuel dominated energy strategies is crucial.
The unfortunate Ukraine-Russia crisis underscores the still delicate geo-political balance that governs Europe, but the opportunity offered by reducing the continent’s dependency on fossil fuels is critical to take, if we want to avoid the profound and irreversible climate disasters that will surely come with current global warming trends.