The War in Ukraine Brings Back Fossil Fuel Diplomacy

Expanding fossil fuels has long been the weapon of choice for global powers locked in diplomatic showdowns. Now, the war in Ukraine is shaping up to bring more of the same– right when the planet can afford it the least.

Originally published on Thursday, February 24th

The Crisis in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week laid bare the complex and often under-appreciated influence foreign policy has on the fate of climate policy around the world.

Economic interests are the usual suspect when considering why climate action has been so slow despite decades of effort, but fossil fuels aren’t merely an indispensable energy source. As the crisis in Ukraine shows, they are also a big stick that allows major diplomatic powers like the United States and Russia to grapple for leverage in tense times.

The result so far from the Ukraine crisis is that two of the world’s leading emitters are ramping up fossil fuel consumption mere months after committing to extremely ambitious reductions targets.

⬆️ Germany Calls Up More Coal

Germany has worked hard to take the mantle of the world’s leader on climate action. Europe’s largest economy has committed to cut emissions by 65% by 2030, and joined the United States in signing one of COP26’s few tangible agreements to drastically reduce methane emissions over the next decade.

But critical to that strategy is a steady supply of natural methane gas, which German lawmakers selected as a “transition fuel” to support its economy while the domestic renewable energy sector grows to utility scale.

The problem these days is that no less than 60% of Germany’s chosen transition fuel is imported from Russia. This Faustian arrangement gives Russia considerable leverage over how German lawmakers craft their response to the Ukraine invasion, while injecting uncertainty around a critical energy source that is already in short supply.

Germany’s exposure to disruptions from Russian gas supply brings with it renewed skepticism about the country’s strategy to drawdown coal and nuclear energy simultaneously.

The last of Germany’s nuclear power will shut down at the end of this year, leaving behind a 13.3% hole in German energy supply compared to just last year. With access to Russian gas now up in the air, German utilities have been forced to revert back to coal to compensate for an even steeper-than-expected shortfall of energy.

And since domestic mines have closed, where are they importing most of this coal from, you ask? Russia.

The result is a climate policy, and its much dirtier backup policy, dependent on greenhouse gas-intensive energy from a geopolitical rival.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has intimated his administration will push back nuclear plant closures to avoid a more serious energy crunch than the one that nudged Germany’s emissions upward by 4% at the end of last year. His economics minister went further, calling the country’s gas dependence “politically wrong,” and “no longer justifiable.”

⛽ United States Hits the Gas

Meanwhile, on the other side of the NATO alliance, United States fossil fuel producers have seized on the Ukraine chaos to bump up production of liquified natural gas (LNG). In January, American exports of LNG to Europe surpassed Russia’s deliveries for the first time ever.

Legendary energy writer Daniel Yergin hailed the surge in American fossil fuel output as an augur of an American comeback on the global stage.

The more gas Europe buys from the United States, the theory goes, the less influence Russia wields, and the faster it sinks economically. With its economy in tatters, Russian leaders will be more likely to come to the negotiating table and cut a deal on Europe’s and America’s terms.

Yergin notes that if Russia were to cut off all Ukrainian natural gas to Europe, the United States would be able to fill the gap.

The strategy is a call back to 2015, when fossil fuels were at the heart of the United States’ negotiations with another major geopolitical rival: Iran.

In the lead-up to the 2015 Iran nuclear negotiations, Iran withheld crude oil from the global market, believing that a hike in global oil prices would lead to greater leverage. Then, as now, American oil producers increased capacity to keep prices down, forcing Iran to negotiate.

The unspoken loser among each of these diplomatic victories, however, was the planet.

To the extent that fossil fuel diplomacy advances America’s interests, it also runs roughshod over the proverbial blood, sweat and tears American diplomats expended at COP26 to wrangle an agreement on methane emissions. Since climate diplomacy formally began in 1995, emissions have skyrocketed, due in no small part to parallel diplomatic maneuvers that have kept fossil fuels alive.

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