War in Ukraine is driving a return to coal and a rush to renewables

ADVERTISEMENT

Russia’s war in Ukraine is driving a rush for renewables — and for coal. Here’s what that means for the planet.

“Bitter but … simply necessary” — that is how Robert Habeck, a leader of Germany’s Green Party and the country’s economy minister, described Berlin’s decision earlier this year to step up the use of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Germany isn’t alone; across Europe, Russia’s war in Ukraine has forced nations big and small to rethink their energy plans. Too many were too dependent on Moscow, which has been cutting energy supplies to Europe in a bid to weaken Western support for Ukraine. Beyond the politics — and the terrible fact that the old dependency has meant that Europe is both sanctioning Russia and sending billions of dollars to Russia to pay for its energy — this has forced some tough decisions.

Few choices have been tougher for than green party leaders and other environmentally conscious policymakers than feeling the need to pivot back to coal. Countries are restarting their own mothballed coal plants, and global investment in fossil fuel is rising at a moment when scientists say it should be declining — and fast.

Purely from a climate perspective, then, the Ukraine War is clearly bad news.

ADVERTISEMENT

Or is it?

Here was Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, just last week, speaking of the war’s impact on energy policy: “Government responses around the world promise to make this a historic and definitive turning point toward a cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy system.”

Yes, you read that right — a “turning point” that will lead to “cleaner” and “more affordable” sources of energy. This despite the magnitude of the crisis, which Birol said is unlike anything seen before — more severe, even, than the global shocks of the Middle Eastern oil embargoes a half century ago. “In the 1970s, we had an oil crisis, but it was only oil,” he told Euronews. “Now we have oil, natural gas, coal, electricity. The reason is very simple: Russia, the country that invaded Ukraine, is the largest energy exporter of the world.”

But the IEA predicts that this massive “shock” will result in a massive shot in the arm for green energy. In fact, the agency says it now expects investments in cleaner power sources to climb to more than $2 trillion a year by 2030 — a 50 percent hike from current levels.

That doesn’t just sound optimistic; it sounds like a paradigm shift. And it also sounds like a flat-out contradiction. The war has caused a retreat to coal and other fossil fuels — and a rush to go green?

ADVERTISEMENT

How can both be true?

A question of time

The apparent dissonance — between a return to coal and a boom in green energy investments — has to do with time frames, analysts told Grid. It’s the difference, in other words, between an urgent, current need and the war’s potentially profound impact on energy investment and policy in the longer term.

In the short term, countries are racing to find whatever existing and readily available sources they can find — and most of these are in the fossil-fuel category. Renewable, “green” sources of energy aren’t yet available at the scale needed to plug the gaps caused by the war. But the longer term looks suddenly hopeful.

“Although there might be some increased coal use in the short term, countries — in Europe in particular — are responding by accelerating their transition [to cleaner energy sources],” Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, an arm of the London School of Economics, told Grid.

“In the short term, and particularly over this winter, there may be the burning of more coal, simply because there isn’t going to be enough gas available with the sanctions and other issues related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he explained. But further out, the picture looks far more promising.

The hunt for dirty energy

This “short term” boost for dirtier energy sources is most visible in Europe, the “epicenter” of the current energy market crisis, according to the IEA.

You can see the shift almost everywhere on the Continent. In France, a major coal facility that had been closed at the start of 2022 was restarted in October; in Austria, authorities have moved to convert a gas-fired power plant into one that runs on coal, as they brace themselves for a possible energy emergency; and Italy is looking to increase the output from existing coal-based facilities. Greece, meanwhile, is planning to keep coal-based plants running for longer than previously planned, as is Germany. And the Netherlands has removed a cap on the amount of power it generates from such facilities.

These are countries that had been moving in more environmentally-friendly directions until the war began and its energy implications — particularly for this winter — became clear.

Beyond the rebooting of their own “dirty” facilities, Europe’s hunger for coal has driven up imports from other countries and investment in fossil-fuel projects in other parts of the world.

European Union imports of thermal coal — the kind used in power plants — from Australia, South Africa and Indonesia were up more than 11-fold in the four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Reuters. The sources are telling: Those three countries traditionally supply to Asian markets, but the pressures created by the Ukraine War have meant more demand from Europe.


ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, one recent estimate suggests that energy firms could pump as much as $100 billion into oil and gas projects in Africa, as they seek to profit from Europe’s energy needs. Depending how long those needs persist, these investments could translate into several years’ worth of increased emissions.

The net effect is that global coal demand for 2022 is expected to rise by at least 0.7 percent to around 8 billion tons. The percentage rise is deceptively small; the uptick comes despite global coal consumption having remained mostly flat during the first six months of the year. And that rise would take the overall level of global consumption to a point not seen since 2013 — at precisely the moment when the fight against climate change requires far less coal consumption, not more.

At the same time, a catalyst for clean energy?

But there is also that other energy rush — the one that will bring good news for the planet over the longer term. Critically, this optimistic case isn’t based only on hopes for what governments might do; analysts say there is already evidence of measures in place that, taken together, will translate to a catalyst for clean energy.

“We look at the numbers; this is our job, the data,” Birol said. “We are seeing unprecedented increases in different clean energy options.”

In the U.S., the IEA points to the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act, which included large-scale government investments in renewable energy sources. That’s “$400 billion on the table in terms of tax incentives, subsidies, different support for clean energy technologies,” the agency says.

ADVERTISEMENT

Over in Europe, there are several new measures, including a vast set of EU-level proposals collectively known as RePowerEU, designed to encourage a shift to cleaner energy sources. Central to the plans, worth a total of around $200 billion over five years, are targets to cut the Continent’s gas usage and help industries and households make the switch to renewable power sources by replacing, for example, fossil fuel-based heating systems with ones that rely on greener energy sources. At the same time, the EU is looking to invest some $85 billion in boosting its capacity to draw power from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. An additional $27 billion will go toward building hydrogen infrastructure.

In Japan, the government is planning to issue bonds worth $157 billion to help fund what it calls a “green transition” — a shift, it says, to a carbon-neutral society over the coming decade. The idea: to raise money to help Japanese homes and businesses make the shift from fossil fuel-based energy sources to renewables, and for investments in new, cleaner power generation sources. Outlining the plans, the country’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, was clear about what’s driving this costly shift: “The energy security environment surrounding Japan has changed dramatically with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

These and other steps being taken around the world are driving the IEA assessment. Together they amount to a boost in clean-energy investment from around $1.4 trillion this year to more than $2 trillion by the end of this decade.

The (climate) bottom line

So what does this mean for climate goals? A shift toward more renewable, cleaner energy sources is of course an unquestionably good thing, even if it is a longer-term story. But the short-term rise in coal use is worrying, at a moment when scientists say the planet is in an existential race to cut emissions.

Can the Earth survive even a short-term trend in the wrong direction?

ADVERTISEMENT

Analysts told Grid that, ultimately, every ton of carbon released into the atmosphere is a problem, as was made clear by a United Nations assessment of climate pledges published last month. It concluded that current promises by countries to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions already fall “pitifully short,” putting the world on a trajectory that leads to a dangerously high 2.4-degree Celsius temperature rise by the end of this century. The aspirational goal enshrined in the 2015 Paris agreement and reaffirmed at the last global climate summit, held in 2021 in Scotland, was to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Scientists say that meeting that goal will require a 43 percent drop in emissions by the end of this decade, compared to 2010 levels. As it stands, the world is actually on track to see a 10.6 percent rise in emissions by 2030.

For governments, then, even as they invest more in renewables, the imperative is that the short-term switch to coal remains exactly that — a limited phenomenon.

As Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute, told Grid: “Provided countries are not embedding commitments in their system, and are able to phase it out as soon as the crisis comes to an end — as long as it is not locking in that infrastructure, it shouldn’t prevent the achievement of long-term climate goals.”

But experts also note that governments must step up their investments, beyond even the boost projected by the IEA last week. Indeed, the agency’s own analysis suggests that for the planet to get to net-zero emissions by the middle of this century, annual investments in clean energy need to rise to $4 trillion; that’s double the new, and better-than-expected, estimate.

ADVERTISEMENT

In other words, from a climate standpoint, the war in Ukraine has led to some good news for the planet — but it is not, even now, anywhere near good enough.

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.