Ukraine: Challenge and opportunity for the UN climate talks

Posted on 14 June 2022

The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the world’s energy and food challenges. The UN climate talks must meet these challenges head on, write WWF’s Shirley Matheson and Fernanda de Carvalho.
The conflict in Ukraine has created a paradox. It has made addressing our unsustainable global energy and food systems both more urgent, and more difficult. While it is expected to be a key theme of the G7 summit, the war has drawn international attention away from fora such as the UN climate talks, while at the same time making their work even more important. 

As governments meet in Bonn for the latest round of climate negotiations, and as they prepare for COP27 in Egypt later this year, they need to acknowledge these tensions and create the political space for responses that address both near-term pressures and longer-term sustainability imperatives.
Certainly, the war in Ukraine has provided grist for those arguing for a rapid shift away from fossil fuels. To the climate change impacts of coal, oil and gas have added national security peril: Russia is the third-largest producer and exporter of oil, the largest exporter of natural gas, and the third-largest exporter of coal. Efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy have sent energy prices soaring. 

Similarly, Russia and Ukraine produce 12% of total calories consumed globally. The closure of Ukraine’s ports is threatening food scarcity and famine around the world: almost 40% of Africa’s wheat imports come from those two countries. This illustrates the vulnerability of the global food system to the disruption of markets in a few food commodities. 

A low-carbon response

The transition to a more just, efficient and renewable energy system offers a solution to the energy security crisis. Indeed, parts of the system that have decarbonized further have demonstrated greater resilience. For example, in the UK, the deployment of renewables over the last decade has cushioned electricity price increases – which rose 54% in the year to April 2022, while gas prices rose 97%. 

However, much of the effort directed to reducing reliance on Russian energy exports has been focused on replacing them with fossil fuels from other sources. In some cases, such as the EU, this includes planned investment in liquified natural gas infrastructure – investments that risk either locking in fossil fuel consumption for decades to come, or being abandoned at great cost as the climate crisis becomes more pressing. This is a make-or-break timing for political decisions that will avoid locking in further fossil fuel dependency and to speed up the transition. 

In our food systems, shortage of supply – even with the absence of Ukrainian exports – is not the key issue. Global food production is sufficient to feed the world’s population, but accessibility and affordability are the main problems, particularly for low-income countries that rely on imports. But food systems are responsible for about 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and there could also be a race to the bottom in terms of land-use planning to accelerate production of agricultural commodities. So there's another opportunity to do things right. 

Governments are understandably prioritizing the immediate harm that the conflict in Ukraine is causing. But it is vital that they keep in mind the longer-term imperatives of addressing climate change and the unsustainability of our global food system. 

Here, there is a vital role for the UNFCCC and the climate talks to demonstrate how both near-term and longer-term goals can be addressed together. 

Combining solutions

Negotiators and the UNFCCC Secretariat can promote solutions to these crises by ensuring:
  • Emphasis on the need for a fossil-fuel phase-out, rather than merely a “phase-down”. Climate scientists have been clear for years on the need to transform our fossil-fuel dependent energy system - and the consequences of delayed action is increasing the risks for the most vulnerable communities. The need to keep pressure on governments that are dragging their feet to set ambitious emission reduction targets, backed by increased levels of climate mitigation finance, is more urgent than ever.
  • An acceleration of the ambition required to ensure continued positive efforts towards the critical goals, without slipping back to past conditions. This will involve clear commitment to full cost benefit analysis and risk assessment of NDCs to ensure continued progress.
  • Acknowledgement of the need for immediate energy transition plans to reflect current global crisis conditions, but without compromising the global commitment to the urgent energy transformation required, with a focus on renewable energy and associated energy efficiency. 
  • Adopting a sectoral approach under the Mitigation Work Program, to be launched at COP27, with concrete steps on implementing the Glasgow Pact provisions on energy.

The food system in focus

There is a clear need for governments attending the meeting in Bonn to better integrate issues around food security and food system sustainability into the climate talks. Agriculture is central to the goals of the Paris Agreement, both as a significant source of emissions and as a potential ally in storing massive volumes of carbon in soils and plants.

Specifically, this could be advanced by extending the mandate of the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, established at COP23 in 2017, beyond sustainable agriculture to address all components of the global food system, such as consumption, food loss and waste, and trade.

Collectively, the COP should set three targets to be met by 2030:
  • That at least half of the area used globally for agriculture and aquaculture is managed sustainably, with no new areas being converted.
  • Halving global food waste and reducing post-harvest loss.
  • Aligning human and planetary health to halve the global footprints of diets.
The war in Ukraine has brought unspeakable misery to millions. The priority of the international community must be to end the conflict, and alleviate the impacts, on energy bills, gas prices and food supplies, that are being felt around the world. But it is also the job of governments, and particularly their representatives in the climate negotiations, to address these near-term challenges while avoiding even worse impacts for the years to come.
A wind turbine stands in a field of sunflowers
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