World

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


Published : 20 Jul 2022 08:51 PM

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 the closure of nuclear power plants in the region because the extreme heat made it difficult to cool the reactors.

France on Tuesday (July 19) detailed its plan to renationalise its electricity utility, EDF, to shore up the nation's energy independence by refreshing its fleet of ageing nuclear plants.

Russia, which for decades has provided much of Europe's natural gas, kept Europe guessing as to whether it will resume gas flows later this week through a key pipeline.

Germany pushed the European Union to greenlight cheap loans for new gas projects, potentially prolonging its reliance on the fossil fuel for decades longer.

Yet while much of the world's attention is currently focused on the region's extreme heat, 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 fuelled 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 on Tuesday.

Germany relies on piped Russian gas for 35 per cent of its energy needs.

At the same conference, United Nations 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 per cent 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.

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 organisation in Cologne, Germany, that promotes efforts to tackle climate change. "We have missed so many opportunities for energy efficiency."