The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a spike in oil and gas prices worldwide. A natural response is for countries with untapped reserves to expand production as quickly as possible, but doesn’t this contradict the pledges they have also made to combat climate change? This issue is covered at some length in a New York Times article today, and the entire discussion—the arguments used by government officials and energy experts and the assumptions of the journalists who quote them—is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how atmospheric carbon causes global warming.
The claims and counterclaims in the article are about whether short term increases in carbon emissions will make it easier or hard to reach a net zero target decades into the future. That would be the right question to ask if there is an on-off climate switch based on what happens in 2050 or some other year, but there isn’t.
The severity of climate impacts will be determined by the accumulation of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere; in economic terms, it’s a stock, not a flow, externality. The true test of our response to the climate crisis is whether we can keep this accumulation within a reasonable limit. That’s the physics and chemistry of the greenhouse effect, not a political opinion. If we emit more this year, no matter what the reason (like Ukraine), the budget constraint requires us to emit that much less in future years. Given that stringent policies are not in place anywhere on planet Earth, and it is unclear whether there is political capacity to bring them about, there is no question at all about the effect of increased fossil fuel production, this year or any other, on climate outcomes.
It’s amazing how removed current political and media chatter is from the basics of climate science.