Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine May Have Disastrous Cascading Effects for Climate

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has completely upended European military spending and the global energy market. The disruptions in both sectors could have massive ramifications for how the world addresses climate change. Already, Germany’s decision to increase its defense budget to 100 billion euros, and the move by the United States and its allies to release 60 million barrels of oil from their strategic reserves, are only the first of what is likely to be a huge reshuffling of global priorities and supply lines in reaction to the military attack instigated by Vladimir Putin.

In the United States, President Joe Biden announced a ban on importing Russian oil, which had previously been exempt from the harsh sanctions imposed since the beginning of the war. Only about 8 percent of U.S. petroleum imports came from Russia in 2021, but even the small decline in supply could contribute to increasing gas prices. Europe hasn’t imposed its own ban, as the continent is far more reliant on Russia for oil and natural gas imports. Although European leaders have committed to decreasing their dependency on Russian energy, that transition will take years, as Russia supplies the continent with 40 percent of its gas and 25 percent of its oil.

The United States is already the world’s largest energy producer, with Saudi Arabia and Russia close behind. The growth of U.S. energy production has been a largely bipartisan affair, even as Republicans push for more and Democrats pay lip service to reining in oil and gas extraction in the name of slowing global warming. U.S. oil lobbyists are using Russia’s invasion, and the subsequent energy supply uncertainties, to push for increased fossil fuels production in the name of “energy security.”

More traditional understandings of security have also been upended since Russia’s invasion. Germany announced it would send weapons to Ukraine, a first in the post-WWII era, and it increase its military spending to 2 percent of GDP. Those moves, along with canceling the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, would have been unthinkable only several weeks ago, according to European defense experts. The United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries have long pressured Germany to increase its military spending, and although the new posture is a radically different approach domestically, the international implications aren’t clear.

Since the end of World War II, Europe has depended on the United States for its military defense capabilities through NATO, as have Japan and South Korea. Both of those countries have defense treaties with the United States, unlike Ukraine.

Some NATO critics on the left have called for Europe to move away from its reliance on the United States for defense. Those who make this argument say that if Europe were less militarily dependent on the United States, there could be an opportunity to unwind NATO and perhaps even scrap the alliance at some point in the future. That position may make sense in the abstract, but it cuts against the broader goal of decreasing militarism worldwide. Certainly, right now, it’s almost impossible to imagine dissolving NATO, as Russia’s invasion has united the alliance in ways the world hasn’t seen in decades.

Also, increased military spending out of Europe is unlikely to result in a decrease in Pentagon funding in the United States, regardless of which party controls Congress or the White House. The likely result, then, of Russia’s actions is a significant net increase in military spending from the U.S. and Europe. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a $13.6 billion aid package for Ukraine, including $6.5 billion in military aid. U.S. lawmakers are also negotiating next year’s Pentagon budget, which is set to exceed the $740 billion they had previously agreed to, far above the $715 billion the Biden administration had initally requested. Setting aside what that could mean for future wars, it is almost certainly bad news from a climate perspective.

Military spending is a notorious contributor to carbon emissions. The U.S. military is the “the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world,” according to a 2019 Cost of War study from Brown University. Another study from the same year showed “that if the US military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, sitting between Peru and Portugal.”

The broad trend is true for other militaries, according to research from Stuart Parkinson of Scientists for Global Responsibility. “I estimate that the carbon emissions of the world’s armed forces and the industries that provide their equipment are in the region of 5% of the global total,” Parkinson wrote in 2020. When factoring in the effects of war — including fires, deforestation and post-conflict reconstruction — the toll rises even higher. In total, Parkinson estimates that militaries and their industrial partners are a greater polluting sector than civil aviation, which contributes roughly as much to global warming as Germany or Japan.

We’re forced to rely on estimates because, as a result of U.S. lobbying during the Kyoto protocols, militaries are exempt from disclosing their carbon emissions to the United Nations. The Paris climate accords also don’t require countries to report their military’s carbon footprint, resulting in a massive loophole that countries can exploit. “With military spending rapidly rising, this loophole is set to grow at a time when other emissions are falling,” Parkinson told The Guardian late last year. “The seriousness with how these nations deal with this issue will affect action in other sectors and in other nations.”

As is the case with most of Biden’s agenda, his record on climate change is decidedly uneven at best. Last month, the federal government recently auctioned off areas in New York and New Jersey for a record $4.37 billion to be used for wind farms that could ultimately power up to 2 million homes. More broadly, in Biden’s first year, he articulated a robust climate policy, by U.S. standards, as part of his Build Back Better spending plan. That plan, and its green energy components, has stalled in Congress thanks to opposition from all Republicans and two Senate Democrats: Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. (Manchin has joined Republicans in calling for Biden to increase U.S. oil and gas production.)

Biden’s actual climate policies, however, bear little resemblance to his rhetoric recognizing the world historic catastrophe that climate change presents. Under his watch, the Interior Department “processed more oil and gas drilling permits during Biden’s first year in office than three of the four years of the Trump administration,” according to Politico. The United States has also drastically ramped up exports of liquified natural gas (LNG), becoming the world’s largest exporter.

Germany is also looking to increase its use of LNG to offset its dependence on Russian energy exports, as well as possibly extending its use of coal plants. Last year, the country embarked on an ambitious plan to use only renewable energy by 2035. It’s not clear whether Russia’s actions will accelerate that timeline or disrupt it, but in the short run Germany’s new reliance on LNG is a lateral move at best. U.S. LNG exporters are already seeing record export levels, as European countries look to offset their energy shortages. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found “that LNG exports have, at best, little climate benefit compared to other options,” and that “compared to clean, renewable energy sources, LNG falls far short.”

For as much as oil lobbyists and their partners in Congress are exploiting Russia’s actions to ramp up drilling, there’s also the possibility that this moment could lead to a more widespread public awareness of the dangers that arise from reliance on fossil fuels and petrostates. Sen. Ed Markey has said a Green New Deal would be a “pathway for peace.”

The massive refugee flows we’re seeing out of Ukraine right now come after more than a decade of similar displacement from war, poverty and climate crisis. More global spending on militaries, and a doubling down on fossil fuel extraction, will make additional migration and conflict more likely. If the world takes this opportunity to recommit to renewable energy, the worst can be avoided, but the last week does not give much cause for optimism.