The Observer view on Ukraine and the climate emergency

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The report last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the need to adapt to global warming made stark, unpleasant reading. Described by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, as “an atlas of human suffering”, it revealed that billions of people now live in parts of the world where they are highly vulnerable to climate change.

Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Kacper Pempel/ReutersDeath tolls from droughts, floods and storms are destined to increase in these regions as extreme heat events and inundations become more frequent. Only urgent action today can halt the worst impacts and prevent a global calamity, argued the IPCC.

In a normal news week, warnings as dire as these would have made front-page headlines in British newspapers. Events in Ukraine ensured they were pushed inside, however. It is not surprising that the unfolding humanitarian crisis occurring in eastern Europe should be the prime focus of our attention and concern. However, there is a danger that the battle for Ukraine may divert attention from the approaching climate change crisis. Even before Russia launched its invasion and triggered a leap in fuel prices, some Conservative backbench MPs had been pressing for the government to cut back its green agenda, a move that has since been followed with calls for fracking to be resumed in the UK in order to boost fossil fuel production and help curb fuel price increases.

These manoeuvres are being mounted by a collection of MPs and peers known as the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. They have tried to blame the government’s green agenda for a cost-of-living crisis, which they say would be better addressed not by raising national insurance payments and imposing green levies but by cutting taxes, resuming UK shale gas extraction, and slowing down the rate at which we impose carbon emission cuts.

Nor are these campaigns confined to the UK. Across the EU, calls have been made for the bloc to reactivate old, decommissioned coal plants “as a precaution and in order to be prepared for the worst”, as the German economy minister, Robert Habeck, said last week.

Across the EU, calls have been made for the bloc to reactivate old, decommissioned coal plants ‘as a precaution’

Such proposals are alarming and the threats they pose should be made clear to the public. In the case of shale gas production, there is simply not enough in the UK to make up for the decline in our reserves of North Sea gas, which have been occurring for more than a decade. Fracking is also deeply unpopular with the public and given that any shale gas extracted would have to be sold at international market prices, it would have no impact on UK fuel bills. Shale gas has no part to play in the generation of power in a Britain committed to playing a leading role in the battle against global warming.

Nor is it realistic to consider reopening coal plants. Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels and any return to its widescale burning across Europe would send the worst possible message to developing nations currently resisting pressure to close down mines and ancient power plants as part of the international programme aimed at cutting back carbon emissions.

The real lesson from the battlefields of Ukraine is that Britain needs to rid itself of its fossil fuel addiction entirely and become self-reliant on electricity that is generated cleanly and efficiently. We need to do that to protect our energy supplies, while at the same time sending a message to the rest of the world that we take the coming crisis extremely seriously. The need to follow this course of action is reflected in the final words of last week’s IPCC report: “Any further delay in concrete anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”

The Observer view on Ukraine and the climate emergency (

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