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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Heat and war combine to hamper the quest to fight climate change

The Long Loch and Derrickson Lake wildfires burning in British Columbia on June 30.

By Somini Sengupta and Melissa Eddy

Deadly heat and Russia’s war in Ukraine are packing a brutal double punch, upending the global energy market and forcing some of the world’s largest economies into a desperate scramble to secure electricity for their citizens.

This week, Europe found itself in a nasty feedback loop as record temperatures sent electricity demand soaring but also forced sharp cuts in power from nuclear plants in the region because the extreme heat made it difficult to cool the reactors.

France on Tuesday detailed its plan to renationalize its electricity utility, EDF, to shore up the nation’s energy independence by refreshing its fleet of aging nuclear plants. Russia, which for decades has provided much of Europe’s natural gas, resumed gas flows through a key pipeline on Thursday, but only after keeping Europe guessing as to whether it would. Germany pushed the European Union to greenlight cheap loans for new gas projects, potentially prolonging its reliance on the fossil fuel for decades longer.

Europe is not alone in feeling the effects of energy turmoil on a hotter planet. China ordered factories to cut back electricity use as extreme temperatures melted roofs, cracked roads and drove people into underground air-raid shelters. India struggled to find coal for its power plants earlier this year during an unusually early and prolonged heat wave fueled by climate change.

The cascading effects of the war and the coronavirus pandemic on energy and food prices have punished the world’s poorest citizens the most. In Africa, 25 million more people were living without electricity now, compared with before the pandemic, the International Energy Agency estimated.

In the United States, history’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, extreme temperatures scorched swathes of the South and the West as prospects of national climate legislation collapsed in the nation’s capital. At the same time, global oil companies reported soaring profits as oil and gas prices shot up.

In effect, the world’s ability to slow down climate change has not only been undermined by the producers of the very fossil fuels that are responsible for climate change, but further challenged by deadly heat — a telltale marker of climate change.

At a global conference aimed at reviving climate action in Berlin, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, called climate change the “biggest security challenge” facing the world and urged countries to use Russia’s war as an impetus to more swiftly switch to renewable energy. “Today, fossil energies are a sign of dependence and lack of freedom,” she said Tuesday. Germany relies on piped Russian gas for 35% of its energy needs.

At the same conference, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it more bluntly. “We continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction,” he said.

The Berlin meeting took place against the backdrop of a bleak moment in global climate action.

Without climate legislation in Washington, it is all but impossible for the United States to meet its national climate goal, nor can it exert much diplomatic pressure on China to slow down its increasing emissions.

China produces the world’s largest share of planet-warming gases at the moment, and it plays a pivotal role in the planet’s climate future: It burns more coal than any other country right now, but it also produces the largest share of the world’s new green technology, including solar panels and electric buses.

A big question mark looms over whether European Union lawmakers will use the Ukraine invasion to accelerate their move away from fossil fuels, or if they will simply import gas from places other than Russia.

The stakes are high. The EU’s own climate law requires the 27-country bloc to shrink its emissions by 55% by 2030. More coal plants are slated for closure than ever before, and there is no evidence that Europe is returning to coal for good, even though some countries are resuming operations at coal plants to meet immediate energy demands. “Coal is not making a comeback,” read the title of a report published last week by Ember, a research group.

EU lawmakers are also encouraging building owners to renovate older homes and businesses to improve energy efficiency. And under EU law, no new internal combustion engine cars are to be sold starting in 2035.

If anything, analysts say, the current crisis draws attention to not doing more sooner. “We have seen some progress, but if we look at the overall picture, it is not enough,” said Hanna Fekete, a climate policy analyst with the NewClimate Institute, an organization in Cologne, Germany, that promotes efforts to tackle climate change. “We have missed so many opportunities for energy efficiency.”

The biggest effect of the global energy crisis is on the world’s ability to slow down climate change. The burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming, as greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere trap the sun’s heat, raising global average temperatures and fueling extreme weather events, including record heat.

With rich industrialized countries like the United States and those in Europe unwilling to move away from fossil fuels, emerging economies are bucking pressure to do so. After all, they argue, it is the wealthier nations of the world — not the poorer ones — that are mostly to blame for the generations of greenhouse-gas emissions that are today wrecking the climate and disproportionately harming poorer people.

That point was made loud and clear by the South African environment minister, Barbara Creecy, at the Berlin conference this week. “Developed countries must continue taking the lead with ambitious action,” she said. “The ultimate measure of climate leadership is not what countries do in times of comfort and convenience, but what they do in times of challenge and controversy.”

Rich countries have not yet delivered a promised $100 billion in annual funding to help poor countries pivot to renewable energy. Many already indebted countries are falling deeper into debt, as they try to recover from extreme weather disasters exacerbated by climate change.

Russia, one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, invaded Ukraine at a time when energy prices were already on the way up.

At the end of last year, oil and gas prices were high, and rising, partly because U.S. oil and gas production had plummeted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and never recovered.

Russia began limiting supplies to Europe as early as last September, helping to drive European electricity prices at the time to their highest levels in more than a decade. At the same time, demand for gas in Europe rebounded, as the economy picked up after pandemic shutdowns and mild weather led to a drop in wind-generated power.

In February, President Vladimir Putin of Russia invaded Ukraine, and Russia further cut gas flows to its European customers, starting with Bulgaria and Poland in April. Germany fears it will be next, as the country waits to see whether Gazprom, the state-owned Russian energy giant, will resume flows through the pipeline that links Siberian gas fields to Germany’s coast. It was shut down July 11 for what is supposed to be only 10 days of annual maintenance.

Several European countries are racing to fill their gas storage tanks in time to have enough energy to heat homes and run industry in the winter. EU officials worry that if Russia does not resume gas flows, the bloc will not reach its mandated goal of 80% capacity by the start of November.

“The world has never witnessed such a major energy crisis in terms of its depth and its complexity,” the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, said last week.

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