How the war in Ukraine derails future climate negotiations: Can we put ourselves back on track for COP27?

Only 12% of nations met the UN deadline to update their climate commitments ahead of the fast-approaching COP27. Despite the war in Ukraine and global energy crisis, can we get back on track to solve the biggest existential crisis of humankind? Donna Harris outlines what needs to be urgently addressed.


It is clear we are now living with the consequences of the climate crisis. This year alone, we have seen extreme weather that has caused floods in Pakistan, the U.S., Brazil, and South Asia; wildfires in multiple countries caused by drought and extreme heat, (which also led to the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa); and many more. The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report released earlier this year highlighted the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity, human communities, our limitations and constraints to adaptation, and the urgency to act now.

Scientists have also warned us that we are running out of time to turn things around. The latest United Science report warned that we are heading in the wrong direction and there is a 48% chance that, during at least one year in the next five years, the annual mean temperature will temporarily be 1.5 °C higher than in 1850-1900 – the temperature level we have been trying to keep under control. Additionally, there is a 93% chance that at least one year in the same time period will be the hottest on record – which could result in more drought, more fire, and more lives lost.

But the war in Ukraine has diverted our attention away from climate change. Instead, world leaders are now rushing to find alternative sources of fossil fuels, re-opening coal-burning plants, and investing in oil and gas abroad. Such short-term fixes will only make the real crisis worse. With the war in Ukraine still ongoing and the COP27 fast approaching, can we get back on track and bring back global cooperation to solve the biggest existential crisis of humankind?

There was high hope for COP26, but where are we now?

There was much to hope for in Glasgow last November. Countries agreed to submit ambitious climate plans. The Glasgow Climate Pact, a first for a UN climate agreement, which was reached by the end of COP26, urged countries to phase down coal and fossil-fuel subsidies. Although it did not ask countries to completely phase them out, it called on countries to make more ambitious commitments by the end of 2022. Countries also agreed on rules for international carbon markets. This commitment now looks like a distant memory.

Countries were given a deadline of 23 September 2022 to submit new plans, but disappointingly, only 23 of 197 member countries of the UK Framework Convention on Climate Change have updated their plans to meet climate goals – known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs. Some of the countries that submitted their ‘updated’ plans did not increase their ambition according to the Climate Action Tracker – these comprised major emitters including; the US, China and India, as well as Brazil and the host of COP27, Egypt. What’s more, many declarations, do not have signatories from all member countries, including the landmark deforestation declaration with only four more nations signed up since last November. So, it seems that even before the war in Ukraine, countries were not making much progress after the spotlights were turned off in Glasgow.

 The environmental impact of the war

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday 24 February this year, most people did not foresee that seven months down the line it would still be going on. It might be fair to say that the leaders in the West were also not prepared for their own countries to suffer such drastic impacts and the consequential current global energy crisis. What the war in Ukraine has uncovered is how much we are still extremely dependent on fossil fuel and how difficult it is for us to wean ourselves off it. Energy and food crises are now at the top of the political agenda, whilst climate change and Glasgow have fallen down the priority list. Many big promises are being put on hold and even worse, things are taking several steps back.

We often focus only on the humanitarian crisis, which is of course, very important, but we often forget that there are also other direct victims of wars – nature and the environment which must be considered. It is important to remember that the environmental impact of the war, including direct impacts on habitats and species, ecosystems, and biodiversity as well as pollution of air, land, and water, is vast and will take years – if not centuries – to revert. The more we destroy the environment and the ecosystems within it, the more we destroy our sources of food, clean air, and clean water. Rebuilding the infrastructures post-war will also generate more carbon emissions and pollution, and require more fossil fuel consumption - all the negative feedback loops we do not want if we hope to remain on course to reduce the global temperature. This is a lose-lose situation.

The current level of consumption of oil and gas cannot continue

The war in Ukraine also throws up another important question – why don’t we think about how much energy we consume? Why do world leaders still try to scramble for alternative sources of oil and gas to keep our excessive consumption when we all know that fossil fuel is bad for the environment? Why don’t we try to reduce/change our demand and consumption of it?

Human beings don’t like to change. We find change very difficult. This is known as status quo bias – our preference to leave things the way they are. Change is perceived as a loss, and change requires effort – both things we like to avoid whenever we can. We are also not very good at planning and following through with our plans – present-bias is also one of our biggest flaws and prevents us (policymakers, politicians, private investors, individuals – no matter how rich or poor) from acting on climate change and changing our behaviour.

We may have the biggest brain that enables us to create a very complex economic system, fly across continents, cure life-threatening diseases, or even come up with a new vaccine at incredible speed. But we are not good at dealing with our own psychological biases. But, there are solutions if we open our minds, make the effort and take that first step toward change and keep practicing it. Once the habit sets in, it will become a new and better status quo.

How do we get back on track?

Because we are not good at committing to our plans and changing the way we live, we need better commitment devices which are credible. Pledges and empty promises are not going to get us far. There need to be more consequences for inaction. Countries need to come together and not only cooperate, but also monitor and assert pressure on each other. Countries who have not submitted their updated NDCs should be named and shamed and countries which push forward with their commitments and actions need to be celebrated and rewarded. Currently, 174 countries have not updated their target, but we don’t know which countries they are – it’s not on the Climate Action Tracker. A list should be published and, if possible, they should be fined or penalised for their lack of commitment.

It is not sufficient to monitor the plan, we need to monitor and publicise actions. The climate crisis is here and now. It is not something far away in the future. A third of Pakistan is now under water. Any country can be next. Do we need to wait until that happens? COP27 is happening in less than two months. It is time to put the differences aside, honour the commitments, name and shame those who don’t, and get our act together before it’s too late.

About the author
Dr Donna Harris a Senior Consultant at Oxford Policy Management, a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), Department of Economics, University of Oxford, and the Director of Studies in Political Economy at the Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford.

Area of expertise