How the Russia-Ukraine conflict put climate action and clean energy on the back burner

UN SecretaryGeneral Antonio Guterres warned: ‘Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use.’ (Getty)
UN SecretaryGeneral Antonio Guterres warned: ‘Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use.’ (Getty)
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Updated 05 May 2022

How the Russia-Ukraine conflict put climate action and clean energy on the back burner

How the Russia-Ukraine conflict put climate action and clean energy on the back burner
  • Environmental issues take a back seat as the war occupies center stage
  • Efforts to cut Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas boost demand for coal

NEW YORK CITY: At a recent UN Security Council meeting convened in New York City to discuss the war in Ukraine, delegates noticed something different. On the conference table in front of them, ambassadors had been given plastic water bottles to slake their thirst.

This would not have been noteworthy but for the fact that the UN had decided in 2019 to go plastic-free. A banner erected at the entrance of UN headquarters at the time made the policy quite clear: “No single-use plastic.”

The return of plastics to the Security Council chamber incensed climate-conscious diplomats and visitors, as it appeared to signal the environment had become an afterthought while the war in Ukraine took center stage.

All the bold talk about tackling the climate crisis in recent years seemed to evaporate the moment the war began, leaving behind the distinct impression that the environmental agenda was some kind of luxury issue to be discussed only in peacetime.

Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, an Ecuadorian diplomat and former president of the General Assembly, was the driving force behind the elimination of single-use plastics at UN headquarters.




Demand for coal in countries such as India, pictured, has soared amid supply chain shortages and the war in Ukraine. (AFP)

Asked about the apparent backsliding on the issue, Espinosa Garces said that times of crisis were no excuse for abandoning environmental priorities.

“The climate crisis is an existential threat to our human security, and we have a responsibility to make peace with our planet if we want to survive as a species,” she told Arab News. “Climate action should not be left on the back burner, even in times of war.”

She added: “Climate change is killing and displacing millions. It has more global and devastating effects than any war. We have to work on both at the same time.”

Backsliding on established practices is not reserved for the UN’s plastics policy. The war in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on the environment by driving up the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

The soaring price of oil and gas has led the US, Europe and other governments to boost production — at the very moment the world ought to be weaning itself off fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable sources of energy.

Some critics, particularly those in the US, see the effort to boost supply as a major setback, or even a “betrayal,” of the environmental agenda, dooming the world’s climate goals on reducing carbon emissions to failure.




Once defended by then chancellor Angela Merkel as a purely economic project that will bring cheaper gas to Europe, the controversial €10 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline was finally been canned by Germany over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)

With his poll ratings down ahead of November’s midterm elections, US President Joe Biden is under pressure at home to bring down the price of gasoline.

Early on in the Ukraine crisis, he released a record amount of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and urged oil and gas companies to accelerate drilling operations. Breaking an earlier campaign promise, he also announced he would open more public land to drilling.

In fact, although the US has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, climate change received only scant mention in the State of the Union address of March 1.

This is despite the findings of the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose lead author, Heleen De Coninck, said the world had “reached the now or never point of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels. 

Responding to the IPCC’s latest report, published on April 4, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, flayed wealthy economies and corporations, saying they “are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames.




In March, the US released record amounts of oil from reserve in an effort to halt surging fuel prices. (AFP)

“They are choking our planet based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuel,” Guterres added.

On Earth Day, marked each year on April 22, activists held nationwide protests, demanding the US government take concerted action on climate change, including the passage of a new climate bill, which involves some half a trillion dollars-worth of clean energy investments.

Activists want the Senate to pass the stalled bill as soon as possible as they fear it will never get through Congress if the Democrats lose control of the house in November’s midterms.

Biden’s hands appear to be tied, however, as Republicans in Congress, along with one Democratic senator, Joe Manchin from coal-rich West Virginia, continue to water down and even block the president’s proposals on climate action.

Instead, the priority has become helping Europe to free itself from its dependency on Russian oil and gas, increasing domestic production and releasing reserves to bring down prices for US citizens.

The EU imported about 40 percent of its natural gas, more than one-quarter of its oil and about half of its coal from Russia in 2019.




The US has banned Russian oil imports in response to the continuing invasion of Ukraine. (AFP/File Photo)

In a joint statement with the European Commission on March 24, Biden appeared to have two conflicting goals in mind: To help Europe wean itself off Russian energy, while at the same time keeping a 1.5 degrees Celsius cap on warming “within reach.”

There are also members of Congress who want to “supercharge domestic energy production of all kinds” to provide Europe with energy and “even finance infrastructure for them.” Reconciling these efforts with the world’s climate goals will likely prove to be a bridge too far.

Yet some believe that if Europe succeeds in ending its reliance on Russian energy, it could be a blessing in disguise, offering a golden opportunity for Europe to become fossil fuel-free in the long run.

One school of opinion holds that the war is an opportunity to accelerate the adoption of clean energy technologies. If this proves to be the case, then the war may actually help the continent achieve its climate goals.

Predictably, environmentalists were heartened on Feb. 22 when Germany scrapped its approval for a newly built gas pipeline from Russia. Berlin now plans to import liquefied natural gas from Qatar and the US.

Meanwhile, Belgium is reconsidering its aversion to nuclear power, and Italy, the Netherlands and the UK are all accelerating efforts to install more wind power.




US President Joe Biden’s environmental balancing act will be put to the test during November’s midterm elections. (AFP)

However, efforts to reduce dependence on oil and gas has also created fresh demand for coal — a cheap, easy, though much dirtier alternative — in places that had been in the process of phasing it out.

On March 21, in his first major speech on climate and energy since the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year, Guterres said the rush to use fossil fuels because of the war in Ukraine is “madness” and threatens global climate targets.

Coal must be banished with a full phase-out for richer nations by 2030, and 2040 for all others, including China, he said.

Paradoxically, although the war in Ukraine might speed up Europe’s move away from fossil fuels in the long term, it could slow the clean energy transition — and thereby boost greenhouse gas emissions — elsewhere in the world if coal makes a comeback.

“Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use,” said Guterres. “This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Countries must “accelerate the phase out of coal and all fossil fuels,” and implement a rapid and sustainable energy transition.

It is “the only true pathway to energy security,” he said.


WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox reported in more than 20 countries

 An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 May 2022

WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox reported in more than 20 countries

 An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
  • Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission

LONDON: The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease, but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.
During a public briefing on Friday, the UN. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.
“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behavior,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.
Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, US, Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.
Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount.

FASTFACT

No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective.

On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.
UK officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106. And Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases on Friday.
WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”
Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.
As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the US begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to curb the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.
Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission.
No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective.
She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.
Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.
“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said.
“So the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”
Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue.
People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.


UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’
Updated 27 May 2022

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’
  • Johnson said after the report was issued that he took responsibility for the events but refused to quit
  • Other Conservative lawmakers this week have said they had submitted letters calling for a confidence vote in Johnson

LONDON: A Conservative lawmaker submitted a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson on Friday and another quit a role as an assistant to Britain’s interior minister, putting new pressure on the prime minister over illegal parties at his Downing Street residence during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Bob Neill, the chair of parliament’s justice committee, said an official report on the parties issued on Wednesday showed a pattern of “unacceptable behavior” over months during Britain’s coronavirus crisis, and said he did not find Johnson’s explanations to be credible.
“Trust is the most important commodity in politics, but these events have undermined trust in not just the office of the prime minister, but in the political process itself,” Neill said in a statement. “To rebuild that trust and move on, a change in leadership is required.”
Johnson said after the report was issued that he took responsibility for the events but refused to quit.
Another Conservative lawmaker, Paul Holmes, said earlier on Friday he was resigning from his government role as parliamentary private secretary at the Home Office to focus on representing his constituents.
“It is clear to me that a deep mistrust in both the government and the Conservative Party has been created by these events ... It is distressing to me that this work on your behalf has been tarnished by the toxic culture that seemed to have permeated Number 10,” Holmes said in a statement.
Other Conservative lawmakers this week have said they had submitted letters calling for a confidence vote in Johnson to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee — which would be triggered if 54 such letters are written.
The letters are confidential, so only the chairman of the 1922 Committee knows how many have actually been submitted.
However, Holmes confirmed to Reuters he had not written a letter to call for Johnson to resign.


As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Updated 27 May 2022

As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
  • Prolonged dry periods have been more frequent in recent years due to climate change
  • Farmers build soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water

KATHMANDU: Water scarcity in Kuinkel Thumka, a mountainous village in eastern Nepal, has for years made life difficult for residents — until a few months ago, when they started to capture excess rainfall during the monsoon season.

Located in the Middle Hills, between the Himalayas and Tarai, the village of 850 people lies in Kavrepalanchok district of Bagmati province, where the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has introduced soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water.

“We built a soil-cement tank in our village eight months ago and started to collect rain,” Gita Kuinkel, a 53-year-old farmer, told Arab News.

“Before this tank, we didn’t have enough water and our lives were hard. It was not enough for our cattle, household chores and irrigation. Now, the water is enough,” she said.

“We don’t have to buy vegetables, we grow and eat vegetables from our own home gardens.”

Cheap soil-cement conservation ponds are constructed in the region with the help of ICIMOD, an intergovernmental research center serving countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), a leading Nepali developmental NGO.

The ponds capture excess rainfall during the monsoon, making water available during prolonged dry periods, which in recent years have been more frequent, even in the Himalayas, as South Asia is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves due to climate change.

Sanjeev Bhuchar, a water management expert at ICIMOD, told Arab News that more than 80 percent of Nepal’s 13 million population was dependent on mountain springs as the primary source of water. But the springs are drying up.

“In Nepal and other Himalaya-Hindu Kush countries, depletion of springs is one of the major emerging water crises,” he said.

“There is increasing evidence that spring discharge is decreasing, or in some cases, ceasing altogether.”

Within the past three years, more than 400 ponds have been built across the country, according to Kiran Bhusal, project coordinator at CEAPRED.

“Farmers can easily build such tanks because the procedure is very easy. It is built with mixtures of soil, sand and cement,” he said. “It is helping the people so much.”

Kamala Adhikary, another resident of Kuinkel Thumka, said that it cost the village about $160 to build a water conservation pond, and the standard of living has changed ever since.

“We didn’t have enough water for drinking, we had to buy water from other areas,” she said.

“Now we can wash our clothes, use it for our cattle and even we do farming, and earn money because of it. It improved our economic condition. A lot of problems have been solved.”

 


Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
Updated 27 May 2022

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
  • Number being granted refuge hits 30-year high
  • Most enter via small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risk of prosecution

LONDON: Charities have raised concerns over the potential for asylum seekers to be criminalized or transferred to Rwanda as the number being granted refuge in the UK hits a 30-year high.
The Guardian reported on Friday that Home Office data for the 12 months to March shows 75 percent of asylum claims were granted, with Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese forming the majority of people making their way from countries with typically high approval rates.
However, most of them entered the UK by small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risks of prosecution under the Nationality and Borders Act passed last month.
The same dataset also showed an increase in the number of Afghans making their way to the UK via the dangerous English Channel crossing, indicating that the resettlement schemes launched after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year are not working.
“The government has said it is giving Afghans a ‘warm welcome,’ but these figures reveal that many have felt they have been left with no option but to take this dangerous route to make it to the UK,” said Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
“The government’s new plans in response to the Channel crossings could mean that Afghan asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda.
“Contrary to the government’s claims, there are few safe routes for people forced into small boats to make it to the UK.”


Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
Updated 27 May 2022

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
  • "We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness
  • So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries

GENEVA: Countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles, a senior World Health Organization official said on Friday.
“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, told the UN agency’s annual assembly.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.
It spreads chiefly through close contact and until the recent outbreak, was rarely seen in other parts of the world, which is why the recent emergence of cases in Europe, the United States and other areas has raised alarms.
So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries where the virus was not previously circulating.
“For us, we think that the key priority currently is trying to contain this transmission in non-endemic countries,” Briand told a technical briefing for member states.
Needed measures included the early detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing, she added.
Member states should also share information about first generation stockpiles of smallpox vaccines which can also be effective against monkeypox, Briand said.
“We don’t know exactly the number of doses available in the world and so that’s why we encourage countries to come to WHO and tell us what are their stockpiles,” she said. A slide of her presentation described global supplies as “very constrained.”
Currently, WHO officials are advising against mass vaccination, instead suggesting targeted vaccination where available for close contacts of people infected.
“Case investigation, contact tracing, isolation at home will be your best bets,” said Rosamund Lewis, WHO head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Programme.