Press play to listen to this article
One hundred days since the COP26 climate deal was struck, world leaders are struggling to stay focused.
In November, governments committed to revisit their emissions goals in 2022 and massively ramp up finance to help poorer countries cope with the impacts of climate change. But with the threat of a war in Europe, the ongoing pandemic and a global energy supply crunch, there are concerns the climate crisis will slip off the global priority list.
“It’s going to distract rather enormously,” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, referring to the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine.
Little obvious progress has been made on the commitments pledged in Glasgow in November. Rather there are signs around the world of some countries backsliding on their efforts to bring down emissions.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said he worried “this current Ukraine problem” could “derail” the process of addressing climate change and raised the possibility that a “new wave of defense expenditure” would “take money away from the climate issue.”
“This is actually also my biggest fear with regard to climate change,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. She added that she believed it was a deliberate part of the Kremlin’s strategy to overwhelm the bandwidth of Russia’s adversaries so “that we do not have time for other crises.”
Speaking to POLITICO on the eve of the 100th day since he landed what he called a “pretty historic” deal in Glasgow, Britain’s COP26 President Alok Sharma said the accord “continues to be fragile. That’s why driving this agenda forward this year is so important.”
But he also believes the COP26 deal — landed amid geopolitical tensions between the United States and China and in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic — is proof that governments can walk and chew gum at the same time.
“It’s challenging where you have one big, immediate geopolitical issue that takes up a lot of bandwidth. But that doesn’t mean that governments don’t also want to get on and focus on the other issues that matter,” said Sharma.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to be of the same mind. “We see the challenge of climate change as the existential challenge of our time. And if you see it that way, you’re going to make sure that you’re doing your part and doing everything necessary to meet the challenge, irrespective of what else is going on, what your other commitments are,” he said.
But events since COP26 have shown the commitments made in Glasgow are far from guaranteed, let alone ready to be built on.
In the U.S., domestic efforts on climate change have been harmed by stalling climate legislation. Across the world, fossil fuels have surged in price, presenting the industry with vast windfalls. Concerns over the security of supply mean governments — including Sharma’s own — are considering exploring for new oil and gas sources. Opponents of efforts to stop global warming are using the pressure on consumers to stoke fears about the cost of climate policy.
Unlike Blinken, Kerry was downbeat. “We are not accelerating sufficiently,” he said. “We see a resurgence of gas and coal at the very moment when momentum should have been building for the transition.”
Holding attention in the face of immediate and overwhelming crises is not a new challenge: The 2008 financial crash, Donald Trump’s presidency and the pandemic each significantly delayed political efforts to address emissions. Every year that passes diminishes the already slim chance of stopping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius as targeted.
Sharma said it was the U.K.’s job as holders of the COP26 presidency “to make sure that this issue continues to be part of the mainstream of dialogue between governments.” The plan is to use “key leader level events” like the G20 and G7 to ensure the climate doesn’t become collateral damage in the face of a Russian attack.
Germany has already put climate at the top of the G7 agenda. And Sharma said he had spoken to the Indonesian hosts of the G20 “about climate and energy being one of the key tracks to drive forward.”
Some governments argue that the climate, energy and geopolitical crises have some solutions in common.
At the Munich Security Conference, both Baerbock and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said weaning off Russian gas — in part by turning to renewables — would weaken Moscow’s position. “By making full use of alternative suppliers and technology, we make Russia’s threats redundant,” said Johnson.
“I truly believe that this is also one of the answers to the crisis. I mean, why is it so difficult for us to formulate strong sanctions because we are highly depending, especially my country, on fossil imports from Russia,” said Baerbock.
But that’s a long-term project. In the short term, said Kerry, the climate effort will suffer. “It’s not what we want, it’s not going to be positive.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Energy and Climate. From climate change, emissions targets, alternative fuels and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Energy and Climate policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.