Will the world heed the climate alert as war in Ukraine reshuffles priorities?

Wind turbines in the Netherlands. (Credit: Unsplash/Peter Beukema)

Climate alarm bells will join air raid sirens sounding in Ukraine for the past month as the UN panel releases its latest report on climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will make another attempt on Monday to warn the world about the catastrophic consequences of the rise in global temperatures if it doesn’t turn things around. In thousands of pages reviewing thousands of scientific studies, the experts will provide an overview of the existing solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. 

But the war in Ukraine and its knock-on effects on global energy and food supply as well as geopolitical relations raises questions about whether climate action will finally become a priority, after two years of remaining in the shadows of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What it’s all about. The report on mitigating climate change is the third and last part of a flagship report by the UN climate body that has been six years in the making. A first part released in August 2021 revealed that the Earth’s climate was undergoing unprecedented changes in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. 

In a second report released last month, scientists warned that half of the world’s population were already at risk from climate impacts, with millions of lives threatened by increasingly frequent and severe droughts, floods, heat waves and other weather events.

The third and last section explores different future scenarios depending on the policies governments implement. 

What it says. The report has remained confidential, as per the UN panel’s rules, until after it is approved by nearly 200 states, which have been gathered in Geneva over the past two weeks to approve line by line a 30-page summary of the compilation. Delegates and scientists were still meeting on Sunday evening to finish the document. According to an approved outline, the authors have evaluated solutions in several key areas:

  • The shift to renewables. Energy is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with two thirds being linked to the burning of fossil fuels. However, still small, renewable energies (wind, solar, hydro, thermal) have picked up pace in recent years as countries ramp up investments into these promising alternatives. But the ongoing war could unravel plans. The stand off between Western countries and Russia as the West tries to break its dependency from Russian oil and gas amid fears of an energy war is already shaking governments’ resolve to ditch fossil fuels. The longstanding red mark on nuclear energy has also started to fade, as investments continue to grow steadily and the war hints to accelerate the trend. 

  • Tech on the spot. The report will also delve into a number of emerging technological innovations that are controversial, including carbon capture and storage and climate engineering (modification of solar radiation). A group of more than 340 NGOs called last week on the IPPC to recognise the risk of these technologies distracting from the fossil fuel phase out.

  • What can consumers do? The panel will also present findings in a new area as it looks at lifestyles and consumer behaviour. It will highlight the impact of people's everyday decisions and how this can be taken into account to elaborate policies to better mitigate climate change.

Other sectors that the report will explore include agriculture, buildings, transportation as well as finance and international cooperation. This is the first report on climate change mitigation since the Paris deal from 2015, where countries agreed to keep global warming to well below 2ºC – if possible 1.5ºC –, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

It will be key in determining whether climate decisions taken since then are working and could influence discussions and any resulting decisions at the next climate summit Cop27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November to steer the world away from a 2ºC or higher path – but as the war in Ukraine keeps unfolding, countries will also have to grapple with its consequences on the world’s economy and political landscape.