When the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) did approve the US and European intervention in Libya in 2011, it was for the protection of civilians from the security forces of that country’s autocrat, Muammar Gadhafi. That campaign, however, quickly turned into one aimed at toppling his government by assisting the armed opposition and so would be widely criticised in the global south for creating ongoing chaos in that country.
After 9/11, the United States offered classically contorted legal explanations for the way the Central Intelligence Agency violated the Convention Against Torture and the four 1949 Geneva Conventions in the name of wiping out terrorism.
Universal human rights, of course, occupy a prominent place in Washington’s narratives about that rules-based world order it so regularly promotes but in practice frequently ignores, notably in this century in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was aimed at regime change against a country that posed no direct threat to Russia and therefore was indeed a violation of the UN Charter; but so, too, was the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, something few in the global south have forgotten.
Worse yet, the divisions Vladimir Putin’s invasion has highlighted have only made it more difficult to take the necessary bold steps to combat the greatest danger all of us face on this planet: climate change. Even before the war, there was no consensus on who bore the most responsibility for the problem, who should make the biggest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or who should provide funds to countries that simply can’t afford the costs involved in shifting to green energy.
Perhaps the only thing on which everyone agrees in this moment of global stress is that not enough has been done to meet the 2015 Paris climate accord target of ideally limiting the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That’s a valid conclusion. According to a UN report published this month, the planet’s warming will reach 2.4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This is where things stood as the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
As a start, the $100 billion per year that richer countries pledged to poor ones in 2009 to help move them away from hydrocarbon-based energy hasn’t been met in any year so far and recent disbursements, minimal as they have been, were largely in the form of loans, not grants.
The resources the West will now have to spend just to cover Ukraine’s non-military needs for 2023 – $55 billion in budgetary assistance and infrastructure repairs alone, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky – plus soaring inflation and slower growth in Western economies thanks to the war make it doubtful that green commitments to poor countries will be fulfilled in the years to come.
Never mind the pledge, in advance of the November 2021 COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, that the $100 billion goal would be met in 2023.
In the end, the surge in energy costs created by the war, in part because Russia’s natural gas supplies to Europe have been slashed, could prove the shot in the arm needed for some of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and methane to move more quickly toward wind and solar power. That seems especially possible because the price of clean energy technologies has declined so sharply in recent years.
The cost of photovoltaic cells for solar power has, for instance, fallen by nearly 90 per cent in the past decade; the cost for lithium-ion batteries, needed for rechargeable electric vehicles, by the same amount during the past 20 years. Optimism about a quicker greening of the planet, now a common refrain, could prove valid in the long run. However, when it comes to progress on climate change, the immediate implications of the war aren’t encouraging.
According to the International Energy Agency, if the Paris Agreement’s target for limiting global warming and its goal of “net zero” in global emissions by 2050 are to prove feasible, the building of additional fossil-fuel infrastructure must cease immediately. And that’s hardly what’s been happening since the war in Ukraine began.
Instead, there has been what one expert calls “a gold rush to new fossil fuel infrastructure.” Following the drastic cuts in Russian gas exports to Europe, new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities – more than 20 of them, worth billions of dollars – have either been planned or put on a fast track in Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands.
The Group of Seven may even reverse its decision last May to stop public investment in overseas fossil-fuel projects by the end of this year, while its plan to “decarbonise” the energy sectors of member countries by 2035 may also fall by the wayside.
In June, Germany, desperate to replace that Russian natural gas, announced that mothballed coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest of greenhouse-gas producers, would be brought back online. The Federation of German Industry, which opposed shutting them down well before the war started, has indicated that it’s already switching to coal so that natural gas storage tanks can be filled before the winter cold sets in.
India, too, has responded to higher energy prices with plans to boost coal production by almost 56 gigawatts through 2032, a 25 per cent increase. Britain has scrapped its decision to prohibit, on environmental grounds, the development of the Jackdaw natural gas field in the North Sea and has already signed new contracts with Shell and other fossil-fuel companies.
European countries have concluded several deals for LNG purchases, including with Azerbaijan, Egypt, Israel, the United States and Qatar (which has demanded 20-year contracts). Then there’s Russia’s response to high energy prices, including a huge Arctic drilling project aimed at adding 100 million tonnes of oil a year to the global supply by 2035.
UN Secretary-General António Gutteres characterised this dash toward yet more hydrocarbon energy use as “madness.” Using a phrase long reserved for nuclear war, he suggested that such an unceasing addiction to fossil fuels could end in “mutually assured destruction.” He has a point: the UN Environment Programme’s 2022 Emissions Gap Report released last month concluded that, in light of the emissions targets of so many states, Earth’s warming in the post-Industrial Revolution era could be in the range of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100.
That’s nowhere near the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious benchmark of 1.5 degrees on a planet where the average temperature has already risen by 1.2 degrees.
As the Germany-based Perspectives on Climate Group details in a recent study, the Ukraine war has also had direct effects on climate change that will continue even after the fighting ends. As a start, the Paris Agreement doesn’t require countries to report emissions produced by their armed forces, but the war in Ukraine, likely to be a long-drawn-out affair, has already contributed to military carbon emissions in a big way, thanks to fossil-fuel-powered tanks, aircraft and so much else.
Even the rubble created by the bombardment of cities has released more carbon dioxide. So will Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, which its prime minister estimated last month will cost close to $750 billion. And that may be an underestimate considering that the Russian army has taken its wrecking ball (or perhaps wrecking drones, missiles and artillery) to everything from power plants and waterworks to schools, hospitals and apartment buildings.
Leaders regularly implore “the international community” to act in various ways. If such appeals are to be more than verbiage, however, compelling evidence is needed that 195 countries share basic principles of some sort on climate change – that the world is more than the sum of its parts.
Evidence is also needed that the most powerful countries on this planet can set aside their short-term interests long enough to act in a concerted fashion and decisively when faced with planet-threatening problems like climate change. The war in Ukraine offers no such evidence. For all the talk of a new dawn that followed the end of the Cold War, we seem stuck in our old ways – just when they need to change more than ever.
- A TomDispatch report