How climate and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline underpin the standoff between Ukraine and Russia

As tensions simmer on the border between Ukraine and Russia, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has become the emblem of the energy and climate issues underlying the conflict, even if it has not yet delivered a molecule of natural gas.

Last week, the US State Department promised that Gazprom’s $11 billion pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany would never open if Russia invaded Ukraine. Much of Eastern Europe, the environmental movement and even the US oil industry opposed Nord Stream 2 as a nexus intended to strengthen Russia’s energy grip on Europe, but the Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the leeway offered by President Donald Trump to push ahead with construction.

Trump’s tacit acquiescence to Nord Stream 2 (often in protest) was one of his only moves against the interests of Texas oil and gas producers, who themselves coveted the European gas market. But it fit perfectly with two other Trump impulses: rejecting climate policy and giving in to Putin.

Now the Biden administration is suffering the consequences. And while he attempts to use Nord Stream 2 as a threat, the pipeline has also served as Putin’s weapon – a wedge to divide Germany and separate Europe’s largest economy from other coalition members of NATO as he threatens Ukraine.

Whatever happens next as 127,000 troops are camped out on Russia’s western border, the conflict already bears the imprint of Trump’s climate denial, Putin’s drive to keep Russia fossil fueled and the slow global transition to clean energy. In other words, it’s a classic example of how climate change amplifies foreign policy perils, said Erin Sikorsky, director of the Center for Climate and Security think tank in Washington, DC.

“Climate is unlikely to be the sole driver of geopolitical confrontation or competition, but it will intersect with other existing risks and challenges in such a way that it will shape the environment,” he said. she declared.

Putin’s Winter Squeeze

The very fact that Putin chose winter for the reinforcement of his troops on the Ukrainian border underlines the geopolitical importance of the climate.

This is the season of the highest energy demand for Europe, which depends on Russia for 35% of its natural gas, which makes it particularly vulnerable to any threat of shutdown, accidental or intentional.

The risks are particularly great this year, as natural gas reserves in Europe are exceptionally low. The economy and weather have spurred increased gas demand, while supply has fallen due to the continued depletion of Europe’s own gas production and a slowdown in shipments to 2021 from Russia.

“Part of what happened is that Russia just didn’t send as much gas to fill storage in Europe; they just sent the bare minimum,” said Nikos Tsafos of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So the backdrop to what’s happening in Ukraine is that the price of natural gas has just been at an insane, unbelievably high level, and governments are feeling it and consumers are going to feel it.”

Since July, the benchmark price for natural gas in Europe has been above the previous all-time high set in 2008, and in December it reached four times that record.

At last fall’s annual Russian Energy Week International Forum in Moscow, Putin berated his European neighbors and gas customers, saying they had set the stage for their own energy problems with their efforts to wean off fossil fuels.

“Over the past 10 years, the share of renewable energy sources in Europe’s energy balance has exploded, which at first glance seems like a good thing,” Putin said. “However, this sector is notorious for its erratic electricity production” and Europe has tapped natural gas reserves to compensate for lower than expected wind and solar production. Those who try to blame Russia, Putin said, “are only covering up their own mistakes.”

But analysts familiar with Europe’s energy security history note that it was vulnerable long before it adopted effective climate policy. In 2005 and 2006, when renewables provided just 9% of the European Union’s electricity, its nations were rocked when Putin temporarily cut off natural gas supplies in the first of what would be a series of disputes with Ukraine. Today, 34% of EU electricity comes from renewables.

“The very idea that Europe wouldn’t be in this mess without the energy transition is crap,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “More renewables actually insulate economies from problems like these. It doesn’t cause them.

But in the short term, at least, Europe remains dependent on natural gas. And Biden’s team has worked to secure gas and crude oil supplies from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, so European allies will be less vulnerable to threats from Russia. This is not the Biden administration’s first diplomatic effort to increase fossil fuel production in the near term, despite criticism from progressives that it runs counter to its vision of a net-zero carbon future. Others argue that there is no conflict between Biden’s immediate geopolitical goals and his long-term climate agenda.

“Gas, green transition and energy security are not issues,” said Richard Morningstar, who served as US ambassador to Azerbaijan under President Barack Obama and also US special envoy for Eurasian energy. “Gas can continue to be responsibly important in the short to medium term, but it’s important to double down on the green transition as quickly as possible,” said Morningstar, who is founding chairman of Atlantic’s Global Energy. Council. Center. “The faster the green transition, the less we depend on fossil fuels. And by definition, the less we depend on Russian gas.

Unfavorable climate for Russia

For now, however, Ukraine is stuck between Putin and Europe. Putin has repeatedly denied he was planning an invasion of the former Soviet state, calling the troop build-up on the border a defensive response against the threat of NATO expansion. The United States delivered a written response last week in which Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said it was “establishing a serious diplomatic path if Russia chooses it,” but Russia’s immediate response was cold.

Among the factors that worked against Putin, several were related to climate and energy. Nord Stream 2 appeared to be losing its power to split NATO, as new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made it clear for the first time that his government was open to sanctions against the project if Russia invaded Ukraine. Her coalition government’s foreign minister is Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, which has long opposed Nord Stream 2, deeming it not only destabilizing for Europe, but contrary to Europe’s climate goals. ‘European Union. The pipeline, while complete, has yet to receive regulatory approval, and environmentalists say it will lock in hundreds of millions of tons of new carbon emissions per year.

Putin’s own drive to cut off Ukraine as a natural gas conduit between Siberia and Europe may have also weakened his hand. Nord Stream 2 is the fourth pipeline it has built to cut Ukraine out of the mix and avoid paying transit fees that accounted for up to 4% of Ukraine’s GDP. The amount of Russian gas transiting to Europe via Ukraine has fallen from 80% at the time of the 2006 Russian shutdown to just 25% today.

“Russia’s decades-long effort to diversify how gas gets to Europe means that even before Nord Stream 2, the impact of a Ukrainian disruption on Europe would be much more limited,” Tsafos said.

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Finally, American officials believe that the climatic conditions have not worked in favor of Putin. January was unusually warm, with temperatures in Kiev reaching up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), well above the ground-freezing average of 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 degrees Celsius). The New York Times reported that senior US officials believe Putin would be unlikely to invade Ukraine when the ground is soft and wet, and tanks and other heavy equipment could get stuck in the mud – conditions the Russians call it “rasputitsa” or “melting snow”. But Biden, who the Times said has recruited meteorologists to help with Ukraine’s strategic planning, warned he believed an invasion in February remained a “distinct possibility”.

Biden describes Putin as a leader struggling with the realities of a warming world and the global transition to cleaner energy and reduced dependence on fossil fuel giants like Russia. “He’s got eight time zones, a scorching tundra that won’t naturally freeze anymore, a situation where he’s got a lot of oil and gas, but he’s trying to find his place in the world between China and the West,” Biden said. .

For now, Putin is looking for this place on the border with Ukraine. The most urgent call for his leadership, however, may be to tend to his own backyard and an economy dangerously dependent on fossil fuels.

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