Ukraine-Russia war: Climate change targets must not be a casualty of Vladimir Putin's aggression – Martyn McLaughlin

A few months ago, I found myself in the unusual situation of standing outside the gents in a temporary annex of Glasgow’s SEC chatting to Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato.

The inauspicious surroundings were forced upon us by the summit-cum-circus known as COP26, an occasion which packed out every last nook and cranny of the venue. But for ten minutes or so, It was instructive to chat about the crossover between the climate crisis and defence.

The atrocities being carried out in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s forces have brought such issues into sharp focus in recent days.

The coronavirus pandemic had already exposed the fragility of global supply chains in our interconnected world, but Russia’s invasion has torn the plaster off a wound that had barely begun healing.

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Nowhere is that more evident than energy supplies. Amid record prices at garage forecourts and spiralling household bills which are plunging already vulnerable families deeper into poverty, the aftershocks of the crisis are already being felt far and wide.

No one knows when the upward spike in prices will tail off, but it is unlikely to be any time soon. Germany’s decision to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in light of Putin’s bloody incursion will see to that, and there are two possible scenarios which would further exacerbate the situation.

If Russia were to turn off the tap off on its oil and gas supplies, either as a pre-emptive strike, or by way of retaliating against UK, EU and US sanctions, prices would skyrocket. The more likely course of action – that those sanctions become tougher and target Russian energy exports – would have the same impact.

Up until now, the West has resisted any such moves. For all that Moscow is reliant on oil and as receipts – they were worth around £179 billion in 2021, approximately half of Russia’s export revenue – Europe is in a bind of its own. Around 40 per cent of the EU’s natural gas imports come from Russia, and the same is true for around a quarter of its oil.

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The prospect of access to Russian oil and gas being curbed should not provide an excuse to abandon the target of net-zero carbon emissions (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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The Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has rightly pointed out that unlike our neighbours, the UK is not reliant on Russian gas, with the North Sea our single largest source, and the bulk of our imports coming from the likes of Norway.

Equally, he has admitted that the reliability of our energy supply does not prevent households and businesses here from falling foul of wholesale price jumps, given they are determined by global markets.

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It is a grim situation which confirms a self-evident truth; the longer it takes Europe to take multilateral action to end its dependency on fossil fuels, the graver the threat will be.

Dominance of the energy supply chain is a geopolitical weapon, and it is one which has long been wielded by Russia. At a time of war, such leverage risks prolonging the horrific scenes that are emerging from Ukraine on an hourly basis, and European leaders know that the only way to end it necessitates taking a significant financial hit themselves.

That they have been reluctant to do so merely underlines the need for a response to the climate crisis which recognises the importance of national security issues in building economies based around clean, renewable energy sources.

It is no surprise that events in Ukraine have led to some calls for the UK to press ahead with extracting oil and gas from new and existing fields in the North Sea. Such arguments were already growing in number due to the cost of living crisis. The war in Ukraine is just another pretext.

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The Net Zero Scrutiny Group – a caucus of around 20 Tory backbenchers – and its cheerleaders have been increasingly vocal since the Russian invasion began, with some pushing for the fracking debate to be reopened, or insisting that coal plants should be fired up.

Such short-sighted calls should be rejected out of hand. Not only would they have a minimal impact on Putin’s ability to bankroll his war, they would do little to influence the global wholesale markets.

Only last month, the Climate Change Committee, the UK and Scottish governments’ independent advisers, stressed that increased extraction of North Sea hydrocarbons would not materially affect oil or gas prices, and in any case, the resources that remain are pitifully small; it estimates that even extracting all proven UK reserves and resources from new fields would only meet about one percentage point of European gas demand each year to 2050.

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Instead, there must be an acknowledgement that economic, climate, and national security policies are inextricably linked, and that for so long as we remain hooked on fossil fuels, all three will be subject to the kind of dangers we are seeing at present.

There is encouraging progress being made in the attempt to wean Europe off oil and gas. An increase in solar and wind power capacity is expected to bring about a 15 per cent increase in output this year alone. Such trends should be accelerated, not curbed.

It is telling that in its ten-point plan to reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian energy, the International Energy Agency places great emphasis on the growth of renewable projects, and the speedy rollout of energy-efficiency measures such as smart thermostats. Other sensible measures, such as improving strategic gas storage reserves during the transition, should also be taken.

Ending Russia’s grip over the European energy market will not be easy, nor will it be quick, but it must be done. In the space of a few weeks, the world’s geopolitical fault lines have shifted. It is a chance to not only end our reliance on Russian oil and gas, but oil and gas full stop.

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