War and politics are complicating efforts by the two biggest polluters in history – the United States and Europe – to slow global warming, just as scientists warn of intensifying risks.
On Tuesday night, President Biden barely mentioned his climate goals in the State of the Union address despite promises to make climate an issue that drives his presidency. European politicians have their own problem: they are struggling to get out of one of the Kremlin’s most powerful economic weapons – its fossil fuel exports, on which Europe depends for heat and electricity.
Oil and gas prices are skyrocketing globally. It’s a boon for those mining and selling the very products that cause deadly heat waves, wildfires and sea level rise. And it’s driving new demands for increased drilling in the United States, already one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas.
The developments come just days after a comprehensive United Nations report implored world leaders to sharply cut emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other dangerously warming greenhouse gases. To fail, they said, is to face a harrowing future where the rate of global warming exceeds humanity’s ability to adapt.
In Washington, Mr Biden’s ambitious climate legislation has been blocked by the unanimous Republican opposition as well as a senator from his own party, Joe Manchin, who represents the coal-producing state of West Virginia and enjoys strong support from the fossil fuel industry. The Supreme Court could further limit Mr. Biden’s ambitions in a case that began this week that could restrict the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
In his State of the Union address – traditionally seen as the best opportunity for a president to rally the nation around an agenda – Mr Biden cited the climate in the context of his proposals to create jobs in repairing roads, airports and other critical infrastructure. “We will do everything to resist the devastating effects of the climate crisis,” he said.
But high gas prices present a risk for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, and his remarks were also aimed at mitigating that. He said he would release oil reserves – 30 million barrels – to keep prices low for Americans. “We are fine,” he said.
Energy experts said Mr Biden had missed an opportunity to link the war in Ukraine to the need to break economic dependence on fossil fuels more quickly. “The president has failed to articulate the long-term opportunity for the United States to lead the world by breaking free from the geopolitical nightmare of oil dependence,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. .
Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman, said Mr Biden had shown “unwavering support” for climate solutions.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought world leaders to a difficult new crossroads. The European Union is feeling the effects most acutely.
Russia supplies almost 40% of the gas that Europeans use for heating and electricity. By exposing the enormous leverage that Russia has enjoyed with its energy exports, the Ukrainian conflict forces European leaders to make urgent choices: should it build new fossil fuel infrastructure in order to replace Russian fuel? by liquefied natural gas from elsewhere, mainly the United States? Or should it move away from fossil fuels more quickly?
Next week, the world will get its first glimpse of Europe’s inclinations, as officials in Brussels are due to announce a new energy strategy aimed at weaning the continent off Russian gas.
A draft of the report, reviewed by The New York Times, suggests the new strategy will propose accelerating energy efficiency measures and renewable energy installations. He sees imports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, from the United States and elsewhere as a short-term measure to offset Russian piped gas.
“This war will have profound repercussions one way or another on our own energy system,” European Union energy commissioner Kadri Simson told reporters this week after an emergency meeting with energy ministers from the 27-member bloc.
Analysts said European countries can quickly reduce their dependence on gas through energy efficiency measures and increased investment in renewable energy, which is already in line with Europe’s ambition to stop to pump additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by the middle of the century. The conflict in Ukraine could accelerate some of this. It could also lead to what Lisa Fischer, who tracks energy policy at E3G, a research group, has called “a tectonic shift” – using renewable energy, rather than sufficient gas storage, to achieve security. energy.
John Kerry, Mr Biden’s special envoy for climate change, underscored this in an interview this week, saying Mr Putin had “weaponized” fossil fuels, especially gas.
“It’s connected, and people have to see it that way. Energy is an important part of options geopolitics,” Mr. Kerry said. “Energy is a key weapon in this fight, and if there was a lot less reliance on gas, there would be a different set of games.”
The United States, for its part, has increased its LNG exports to Europe to counter the decline in Russian piped gas. By the end of this year, the United States is expected to have the largest LNG export capacity in the world.
The current sanctions nations have imposed on Russia do not directly target its oil and gas sector, but the invasion of Ukraine is expected to disrupt supply routes and has fueled fears that Russia could cut shipments.
In the United States, Republicans have said the Russian invasion of Ukraine underscores the need to aggressively drill for more oil and gas in the United States to provide Europe with an alternative. Sen. Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, on Tuesday called Mr. Biden’s opening of the strategic reserve a “thimble in the ocean.”
White House officials said Mr Biden referred to climate change and clean energy throughout his speech. He noted that Ford and GM are investing billions of dollars to build electric vehicles, creating millions of manufacturing jobs in the United States. He also noted that the financing of the infrastructure package will make it possible to build a national network of 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles.
But climate change politics is at a critical juncture in the Biden administration. The president’s central legislative agenda, which he called the Build Back Better Act, is dead. Democrats still hope to pass about $500 billion in clean energy tax incentives that were part of the package, but the opportunities to do so are dwindling. If that investment doesn’t materialize, and the Supreme Court also limits the administration’s ability to regulate emissions, Mr. Biden’s goal of roughly halving U.S. emissions from 2005 levels could be essentially unachievable.
Although climate was not the stated goal of Biden’s speech on Tuesday, administration officials said Russia’s war on Ukraine had not taken climate change out of the picture. of the day. They noted that Mr. Biden has highlighted climate change in virtually every federal agency and moved forward with major clean energy deployments, including a record-breaking offshore wind auction last week that reported over $4 billion.