'Big oil' is making huge profits on the back of the war in Ukraine. Photo: Paul Mattsson
'Big oil' is making huge profits on the back of the war in Ukraine. Photo: Paul Mattsson

Tom Baldwin, Socialist Party national committee

With the horror of war in Ukraine filling the front pages, the latest report of the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) got little news coverage. But dealing with rapid and destructive climate change has lost none of its urgency.

The IPCC report continues the trend of worrying scientific predictions regarding global heating and the increased incidence of destructive extreme weather events to eco-systems and human populations. UN secretary general António Guterres says that when it comes to climate action, “delay means death”.

The Ukraine war has direct implications for meeting that challenge. Yet instead of using the war-related issues of fuel security and soaring energy prices to rapidly transition to green renewable energy, capitalist politicians, of all hues, are trying to increase fossil fuel production outside of Russia.

Boris Johnson, for example, batted away the public outcry arising from the Saudi Arabian regime’s latest human rights abuses on his recent visit there to beg the dictatorship to increase its oil production.

Russian exports

Russia is a major exporter of fossil fuels. It’s the world’s second biggest producer of gas and third biggest producer of oil. In 2020 it was responsible for 17% and 12% of global output respectively. Almost half of Russian exports are fossil fuels. The war has pushed up fuel prices and made the energy market more volatile.

In response to the invasion, many governments have moved to restrict trading with Russia.

The US, the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, has stopped importing Russian fossil fuels, which only account for a small fraction (3%) of US total consumption. Likewise, the UK gets most of its gas supplies from North Sea fields and imports less than 1% directly from Russia.

In mainland Europe, however, it’s a different story, with 35% of gas supplied by Russia. Germany has temporarily halted the opening of the ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline from Russia. However, with two-thirds of their gas coming from Russia, Germany has not imposed punitive sanctions on Russian fossil fuels imports.

Despite their professed concern for Ukrainian citizens and their claim that sanctions are an effective way of protecting them, capitalist governments in Europe are clearly prioritising the supply of energy to their economies and hence protecting business profits.

Concerns about pricing and security of energy sources are proving a more urgent spur for many governments to try and move away from Russian fossil fuels than environmental concerns ever have. But this pivot away from Russia does not mean a clear move towards clean energy.

Robert Habeck, Germany’s Green Party vice-chancellor and economy and climate minister, justified his party’s U-turn on ending the use of coal for energy generation as ‘a short-term economic expedient’.

‘Big oil’ fan club

In the UK, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) of 20 Tory MPs was formed last year. This pro-fossil fuels group includes Steve Baker, former chair of the hardcore-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), and former minister and GB News presenter, Esther McVey.

NZSG is calling for the government to rethink its pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by scrapping ‘green levies’. They have tried to claim that this is necessary to avoid people being made worse off by rising fuel costs.

Needless to say it does not support nationalising energy firms in order to ensure this. Nor do their parliamentary voting records suggest any genuine concern for the living standards of working-class people.

NZSG is now using the Ukraine war to make the case for increased domestic production of fossil fuels. Steve Baker has used the conflict to demand the ban on toxic ‘fracking’ be overturned.

He implied those opposed to fracking were complicit in enabling Putin to begin the invasion, saying: “Everyone who allowed our shale gas to remain in the ground on a false pretence should hang their heads in shame”, and called on the Prime Minister to “go for gas with all the vigour of a national war effort”.

This drive is not limited to the Tories’ right-wing fringe. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pushed for extraction in six new North Sea oil and gas fields with the go-ahead expected to be given this year.

The conflict in Ukraine means fossil fuel corporations can now spin increased production with buzzwords like ‘energy security’ and ‘independence’.

In a capitalist society geared towards profit, rising fuel prices makes this a more attractive investment proposition for these firms. Thus, oil giant Shell who two weeks after the COP26 environment summit last November, when oil was under $70 a barrel, said it was pulling out of the Cambo field off the Shetland Islands, is now reconsidering as oil is priced at over $140 a barrel!

However, the reliance on Russian fossil fuels is also a clear argument for renewable, clean energy as the alternative. Solar and wind power energy sources are stable, regardless of geopolitical stresses and conflicts.

However, Russia is also a key producer of many of the metals and other materials needed for the production and storage of such energy. Rising prices of these commodities makes investing in green energy production less attractive for private firms.

This is another example of why the fight against climate change must be a global effort and that the big global energy corporations must be nationalised as part of a democratic plan of sustainable, net-zero carbon production.

Military

Another consequence of this war is the drive by Western governments to significantly raise military spending.

Such expenditure is already a colossal drain on the resources of society. Global military spending is estimated at close to $2 trillion annually, more than even the highest predictions for the cost of stopping climate change between now and 2050.

Building up military arsenals is also incredibly polluting. Research from Brown University found the US military to be “the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases in the world”, with a greater carbon footprint than entire countries such as Portugal.

The destruction of war itself also comes at an enormous environmental cost. The climate implications can be added to the long list of the horrors that war brings.

Research from the right-wing think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs showed 75% of under-40s in Britain see capitalism as responsible for climate change.

They’re right. Capitalism’s unplanned, headlong drive for profits is a threat to life on earth.

Competition between the ruling classes of different nation states is a constant impediment to tackling climate change. War, the most brutal expression of that competition, worsens the risk of climate chaos in many ways.

A socialist society, based on a democratic planned economy and the international unity and cooperation of the working-class, can eliminate both.