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Sleepwalking to Catastrophe: The Other Impact of the Euro-Energy Crisis

24 Mar 2022
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
A petrol sign viewed from a muddy puddle in Ruskington, UK. 
Source: Flickr,, Kevin Doncaster.

2021 saw nations commit to some of the most ambitious climate targets to date. As the energy crisis hits petrol stations, world leaders have quietly backtracked from these pledges.

On a chilly Glasgow day last November, Boris Johnson, welcoming world leaders to the much-heralded United Nations climate change summit, spoke passionately about the degradation of the planet caused by global warming. “The longer we fail to act,” the British prime minister said, “the worse it gets and the higher the price we pay when we are eventually forced by catastrophe to act. It is one minute to midnight on the doomsday clock and we need to act now.”

The opening ceremony over, Johnson made his way to the generous hospitality marquee of the Gulf state of Qatar, a friend of Britain, where he was greeted by the emir, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani. There is no transcript of the conversation, but it appears the prime minister expressed deep concern about Britain’s diminishing supplies of natural gas, reflecting growing world shortages and a sharp rise in prices. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Within a fortnight, four of Qatar’s largest super-tankers had been diverted to unload cargo at a British terminal. London then proposed a long-term deal. Away on holiday at his country dacha, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a notable absentee at COP26, was watching the surge of US dollars into state coffers following hikes in oil and gas prices, facilitate his plans for invading Ukraine. United States intelligence already knew what Putin was planning. In the weeks before COP26, president Joe Biden had taken the unusual step of sending CIA director Bill Burns to Moscow to tell Kremlin officials that the White House knew of Putin’s Ukraine plans and suggest he find peaceful ways of expanding Russian influence.

In the months after COP26, much of the world, including the two major polluting nations, China and the US, continued to make progress towards the limited commitments agreed in Glasgow.  Most OECD nations agreed to bring forward their target of net-zero emissions from 2050 to 2040, or even 2030. But these new targets required a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels and the immediate scaling up of cleaner energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear.

Given the languor of the Christmas season and the onset of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, progress was slow. Australia’s Scott Morrison actually went the other way, proudly announcing two new gas generators to produce electricity. But there were hopeful signs as some of the world’s major oil producers began to use their excess profits to diversify into clean energy. Royal Dutch Shell joined up with Scottish Power to develop offshore floating wind farms, spending an extra AU$86.5 million to support supply chains.

The immediate prospects for solid action to combat climate change took a dive when Putin launched his cruel bombardment of Ukrainian civilian targets — including schools, hospitals, supermarkets, and high-rise apartment blocks — leading to the toughest economic sanctions ever imposed by North Americans, Europeans, and their allies. By this week, when NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced that it was providing Ukraine with special equipment to defend itself against weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, the concept of energy transformation had ground to a halt.

The world’s largest commercial trading bloc, the European Union, was finalising detailed proposals to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas. Leaders of its 27 member countries are expected to approve a plan drawn up by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to use the EU’s muscle and money to buy up supplies of oil, gas, and possibly also steaming coal. The EU has already blocked the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, recently constructed to bring more natural gas direct from Siberia under the Baltic sea to Germany, but Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz has blocked Joe Biden’s request that the EU follow America’s sanctions on the purchase of fossil fuels from Russia, claiming it would create a recession.

Oil and gas provide Russia with more than a third of its income, and roughly two-thirds of its supply is exported to Europe. Last year, Russia’s oil and gas income rose by a staggering 51 percent to US$119 billion, or almost $500 million a day. A primary school student could quickly work out how much damage an EU embargo could do to the Russian economy, especially to Putin’s clique. But then, the United States is not short of oil itself and in recent days has negotiated with Venezuela. Any deal would likely be simple: a release of oil in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions on the Maduro regime.

Post-Brexit Britain, with depleting North Sea reserves, took a different tack. After being lukewarm to new exploration, it turned hot saying new applications would be fast-tracked. This has led Shell to resubmit its plans for the Jackdaw gas field in the North Sea — turned down last October — and to reconsider its withdrawal from the giant Cambo oilfield off the Shetland Islands. The government is also proposing to ease planning rules to enable the building of more onshore wind farms.

Johnson, perhaps encouraged by his earlier success with the emir of Qatar, set off on a two-day trip to lobby other multibillionaire friends of the United Kingdom in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The ruling families have strong business and personal links with Britain — each own a Premier league football club, the ruler of Dubai owns a leading racehorse stud, and Gulf billionaires flock to their UK mansions for the summer season. But they also have close connections with wealthy Russians. For Putin’s friends, the emirate of Dubai provides a tax haven, a home in the sun, and plentiful marina berths.

President Biden had already tried to persuade both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to supply more oil to ease the pressure on prices, but relations between Washington and Riyadh are not what they were, soured by Biden’s criticism of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Johnson made his case in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and received courtesy and Arabic coffee but no oil.

All of which, according to the United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, means the world is “sleepwalking to catastrophe.” In his first major speech since COP26, he described the rush to fossil fuels because of the war in Ukraine as madness threatening global climate targets. Guterres did not mince his words as he addressed The Economist Sustainability Conference — the ambitious promises world leaders made last year at a climate summit in Glasgow were “naïve optimism,” he said. He added that the Paris climate pact’s ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5°C was “on life support … in intensive care.” “Keeping 1.5 alive requires a 45 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by mid-century,” the UN chief said. “That problem was not solved in Glasgow.”

Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues.He was president of AIIA New South Wales.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.