Ukraine war: COP26, IEA heads warn of digging in on fossil fuels

Alok Sharma and Fatih Birol say they are hopeful the global hydrocarbon crisis could spur a transition to green energy.

Tanks for producing bio gas
Heads of the UN's climate agency and International Energy Agency warn against countries developing new fossil fuel infrastructure [File: Martin Meissner/AP]

The executive director of the International Energy Agency and the president of COP26, the United Nation’s 2021 forum on climate change, have warned against countries investing in fossil fuel infrastructure in light of shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking during a joint interview with Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Monday, Fatih Birol and Alok Sharma both expressed hope the ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine, and the international energy crisis it has sparked, will boost the promised transitions to renewable energy.

Birol called the current global situation a “historic opportunity to accelerate the clean energy transition”.

“But I see that in some countries there is an appetite to invest in large scale fossil fuel investment,” he added, without naming any nations. “If you do so, we will lock in our energy infrastructure and the chances of reaching our climate goals, which were once again agreed to and endorsed in Glasgow, will be diminishing substantially.”

Those COP26 pledges include a pact to “phase down” coal and government fossil fuel subsidies and to pivot towards renewable energy in an effort to prevent global temperatures rising by above 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial levels.

Striking a slightly more optimistic tone, Sharma, a British minister who oversaw COP26, said the Russian invasion meant the financial community has “started to understand that actually relying on fossil fuels makes you vulnerable, particularly when those are controlled by hostile states”.

“And I think what you’ve seen as a response is a significant commitment coming forward from the international community to move much faster to renewables towards green energy,” he said.

“I think the world has started to understand that our future is not about fossil fuels. This is about accelerating the clean energy transition – and we need to do it now.”

Still campaigners have said recent moves to end reliance on Russia could undermine the shift to more renewable energy.

Last week, the European Commission announced a 210 billion euro ($220bn) plan to end its dependency on Russian fossil fuels – particularly natural gas – in five years. While the plan has been framed as speeding up the transition to more green energy production, it includes 10 billion euros ($10.6bn) in natural gas infrastructure, and up to 2 billion euros ($2.1bn) in new oil infrastructure.

The plan also projects coal use to fall more slowly than previously planned, as temporary reliance increases amid the transition.

Birol, again not naming any countries specifically, said he was worried the “immediate response to energy security may create additional challenges to address our climate problems”, and called on world leaders to build on their commitments at the upcoming COP27 summit to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt.

“People shouldn’t use what Mr Putin did to justify their long-term fossil fuel investments,” he said of Russia’s president.

He described the current situation as “the first global energy crisis” the world has faced.

“In the (1970s) for example, we had an oil crisis … but it was only oil. Now we have oil. We have natural gas. We have coal – because Russia, the country that invaded Ukraine, was the number one oil exporter of the world, number one natural gas exporter of the world, and a major player in the coal market. So it’s a huge energy crisis with possible implications on the global economy,” Birol said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies