2022 Was a Year of Turning Points
If you had to distill the unruly past 12 months into a single headline, it might be something like this: "2022 Was the Year Energy Took Over Our Lives. "
This was the year, after all, that a potential 1.5 billion-plus people worldwide watched probably the best FIFA World Cup final ever in the natural gas super-state of Qatar, a country with no significant tradition in the game, but a way of getting key votes. The year that the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour joined Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain (with all bets on Newcastle United to follow) in turning unlimited oil and gas money into a new center of gravity for sport. And the year a historic breakthrough in nuclear fusion seized the headlines, promising that fusion is – as it's been for decades – the energy of the future.
This was also the year when billions – at least in wealthy nations – who previously spent little to no time thinking about where the petroleum in their cars and the gas powering their boilers comes from learned how to pronounce "Kyiv."
For the climate movement, Russian aggression and the ensuing global game of musical chairs on oil and gas supply were a major factor but not the only one in making 2022 perhaps the most critical year for climate action and energy transition yet. In particular, it was a year of five turning points that created a distinct world before and a new world after. Together, they opened the door to a better, more sustainable and just 2030, showing both what it will take and the fights we'll have to fight to get there.
The Cost of Fossil Fuels Hits Home for Everyone
One of the clearest takeaways of the war in Ukraine that as of November has led to an estimated 200,000 casualties and cruelly left millions shivering without power is that the world needs to get off fossil fuels – fast.
For decades, Russia has acted as Europe's gas pump, supplying nearly 40% of the EU’s methane gas. That level of reliance has provided the Kremlin and state-owned gas company Gazprom with both billions in revenue and – before the war – tremendous leverage over European politics.
It's not hard to imagine that this leverage (not to mention the revenue) – along with a deep misreading of history and abiding sense of grievance – were at the back of Russian President Vladimir Putin's mind in the decision to invade. But like so much of the war, things haven't gone to plan.
Rather than simply roll over, the EU stepped up plans to wean off Russian gas completely within five years. Which led the Kremlin, with the grace of a good bully, to respond with the political equivalent of, "You can't fire me. I quit," drastically cutting supplies and then shutting down the key Nord Stream 1 pipeline supplying mainland Europe entirely.
Meanwhile, the cascading series of crises the war has unleashed – skyrocketing energy prices, rising inflation, slower growth, surging food costs, and factories going dark – have brought the true costs of a fossil fuel economy – and existential threat petrostate dictators pose to our democracies – home for people worldwide in ways that news reports simply can't.
In the US, the Drill Baby Drill crowd predictably wasted no time in arguing the war showed we need more oil and freedom from regulation or climate concern. But instead the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the invasion has "turbo-charged" the shift to clean energy, as policymakers draw the obvious conclusion and look for energy alternatives that don't inherently involve dictators.
Looking further ahead, the IEA now expects fossil fuels to peak within five years. Not soon enough for our Paris Agreement goals, yes, but the direction of travel is right. And with the right combination of policy and business moves and action from civil society, we have to hope we can bring it closer.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest (new) roadblock.
The Dash for Gas Becomes the Next Big Threat
Spare a thought for EU policymakers. Because even as they scale up wind and solar to make up for lost Russian imports (so far saving an estimated $97 billion in gas), the continent simply does not have the turbines, panels, batteries, and transmission to shut off gas completely and keep the lights on and houses (somewhat) warm for millions. At least not yet.
Which is why many quickly began jetting to capital cities across Africa this spring, hoping to tie up deals in countries from Algeria to Mozambique to turn their extensive gas reserves into fuel for European power stations and homes.
For many activists, this "Dash for Gas," is just another chapter in a long story of energy colonialism on a continent with centuries of scars of European exploitation and resource extraction. For some African leaders, it's just another example of Western hypocrisy from rich nations who – just months earlier – had been lecturing them on the need to avoid developing these same resources, while burning gas and coal at home.
Outside of the politics, the Dash for Gas is fast becoming a major threat to both global climate goals and ecosystems across the continent. New analysis projects that the land used for oil and gas development in Africa is set to quadruple, with oil and gas blocks overlapping with 30% of the continent's dense tropical rain forests. In particular, development could wipe out as much as a third of this forest in the Congo rain basin (an area twice the size of Germany), which plays a critical role in soaking up climate-changing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Development also threatens to upend the lives of an estimated 35 million people who live in the region – including hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples – and could be catastrophic for the forest's rich biodiversity and thousands of species of plants and wildlife, including endangered elephants and gorillas.
Yet another danger for Africa is that today's high gas prices may not stay that way as energy transition continues and demand ultimately shrinks, leaving nations unable to compete with lower-cost gas producers like Qatar and the US and stuck with hugely expensive stranded assets while Europe, once again, walks away.
Speaking of the US, across the Atlantic, another Dash for Gas is on. Back in February, apparently moved by Rahm Emmanuel's adage to "Never let a good crisis go to waste," the US gas industry patiently waited one full day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine before beginning a lobbying blitz in Washington.
The goal was simple: persuade the White House that US liquified natural gas (LNG) – gas cooled to -260° F (-160° C) to a liquid form that can be easily stored and shipped – could replace much of the gas Europe was losing from Russia. All the administration had to do was cut regulations and speed approval and financing for pipelines and export terminals to get it there.
And that's basically what happened. In March, US President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a deal to expand US LNG exports to Europe to help the continent end its dependence on Russian gas while "accelerating our progress toward a secure clean energy future."
The ensuing months have been a blur of new and expanded developments, with US companies securing at least 19 new agreements to supply 24 million tons of LNG per year and four new export facilities under construction and expected to begin operations by 2026.
No surprise, instead of driving progress toward a secure clean energy future, these facilities will produce nearly the same greenhouse gas emissions as 18 million cars running for a year (estimated) by their extraction and operations alone. Accounting for up and downstream emissions, this figure gets several times worse.
If you're wondering why the US – now the world's largest LNG exporter – is developing facilities that won't come online until 2025 or 2026 to help Europe face an energy crisis in 2022 and 2023, you're not alone.
As Senator Angus King noted in a hearing in May, expanding LNG exports might be necessary to help Europe in the short term, but "the problem is we're building 35 year assets." Worse, Climate Action Tracker reports that production from all the new 35-year assets in North America and Africa will far exceed what the world needs to replace Russian supplies, equivalent to producing five times current EU imports from Russia and double global Russian exports by 2030.
That's exactly the problem. While the scientific community warns in no uncertain terms that developing any significant new fossil fuel infrastructure will make achieving our Paris Agreement objectives impossible, the industry is remaking the map not to address a short-term crisis, but to ensure we all remain customers for a long, long time.
The US Creates a Climate Economy and Australia Goes Big
For the US climate movement, there was one world before September 13 and entirely new one after it. That's because when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law, he wasn't just creating a new set of policies. He was beginning the wholesale transformation of the US economy to fight climate change. And it just might work.
The topline number of reducing US emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by 2030 from a single bill is alone impressive. So are projections that the IRA will help create at least 1.3 million new jobs.
But the truly groundbreaking part is how. In a nutshell, a huge part of the IRA is about shifting US demand, production, and use from fossil-fuel based technologies that accelerate climate change to cleaner alternatives that fight it.
The tax code is the bill's secret weapon, with millions in incentives to make it easier for Americans of all income brackets to choose climate-friendly technologies like heat pumps and electric vehicles on one hand and for developers to build the solar, wind, and other renewable generation we need to power them all sustainably.
Critically, the bill has the potential to be a huge step forward in making the country a more equitable place, with $60 billion of IRA benefits targeting environmental justice communities choking on fossil fuel pollution and living with the legacy of institutional neglect. In practice, this means real funding for community-led projects to tackle pollution, zero-emission vehicles to replace dirty buses and garbage trucks, and cleaning up ports and helping Indigenous communities successfully transition to clean energy.
It's worth underscoring that the biggest climate bill in history didn't happen by accident or itself. What became the IRA began as the Build Back Better framework in 2021, a sweeping $3.5 trillion investment in America, with major provisions to fight climate change, bring down the costs of prescription drugs, offer free community college, improve home care for seniors, and more.
As politics took over, that $3.5 trillion framework was whittled down to a $1.75 trillion bill that was first killed a year ago and then resurrected in July 2022 as the (trimmed-down) IRA. While the bill still contains some provisions to cut healthcare and prescription drug costs, the primary funding and focus was climate.
That climate made it while so many other noble priorities didn't comes down to people like you. For nearly a year and a half, millions of Americans marched in the street, called their members of Congress, signed petitions, and on and on and on.
Here at Climate Reality, for example, our Climate Reality Leaders and chapter advocates met with their members of Congress over 150 times, while supporters sent over 180,000 messages. All with one message: Go big on climate. Now.
We weren't alone of course, but the net result was a powerful statement of what regular people can do when we work together and do not quit.
Not to be outdone, in September, Australia passed its own historic law, the Climate Change Bill of 2022, which commits the nation to cutting emissions by at least 43% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.
The bill has been cautiously welcomed across Australian society and by many Pacific neighbors, but advocates warn it's still a ways from the minimum 50% cuts that states and territories and many developed economies have committed to.
Still, two major economies – and polluters and fossil fuel exporters – both passing such sweeping bills counts as progress to build on – and we'll take it.
"Loss and Damage" Finally Enters the Lexicon
After the UN's COP 26 climate conference ended in November 2021 with countries agreeing to a "phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies," advocates hoped this year's conference would be another step closer to an agreement to phase out fossil fuels altogether.
But with Russian aggression upending global energy markets and petro-states like Saudi Arabia effectively blocking any more assertive language, COP 27, held in oil-friendly Egypt, proved – on this front, at least – an utter failure.
But why history will remember COP 27 is that this was the conference where the rich world finally acknowledged the need for a "loss and damage" fund to support developing nations hit by climate-fueled hurricanes, droughts, floods, and more around the world.
The funding conversation isn't new. For years, wealthy countries have been falling short on the commitment they made at COP 15 in Copenhagen to provide $100 billion annually to help developing nations adapt to and mitigate the effects of a warming world.
The sea change here is the tacit acknowledgement of cause and effect between wealthy nations' emissions and the horrific floods that swallowed nearly a third of Pakistan this summer, killing nearly 1,700. Or the annual list of super typhoons smashing into the Philippines. And funding not just for rebuilding lives and homes torn apart, but also building the kind of resilient societies and economies that can survive and maybe even thrive the worst yet to come.
Much remains up in the air. What exactly the fund will look like is still TBD, with a transitional committee set to develop recommendations to present at next year's COP 28 in Dubai. And the creation studiously avoids any language of liability for a developed world terrified of endless financial claims. But still, a door to a more just world cracked open in Egypt this November. One that should prove impossible to close.
A Whole New Level of Accountability
Turns out that major oil and gas producers are significantly underreporting their emissions. By nearly a factor of three.
That was the headline finding in the announcement from Climate TRACE, a nonprofit coalition of data scientists and researchers using satellite imagery and other information tracking to provide real-time accounting of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
For advocates, policymakers, and regular people worldwide, the publicly-available data from the Climate TRACE satellite offers a new and unprecedented level of visibility on who's generating climate-changing emissions and how much.
The result is a powerful tool for accountability at a time when the airwaves and internet are full of greenwashing and now improbably "nature-rinsing" claims from major corporations and governments looking to boost their environmental credentials among consumers anxious about the fate of the planet.
In short, data from Climate TRACE will let us measure corporate and government claims against reality. To say, in effect, "You said X. But the data says Y." and hold the politicians who represent us and the companies that want our business to account for the damage they do.
Equally important, Climate TRACE offers business and government leaders sincerely committed to cleaning up their act a science-backed baseline to know where they stand in terms of emissions – and how much further they have to go. Expect the data to become a reference point for climate negotiations at future UN conferences as well.
We Have Work to Do
The new year beginning on January 1 will also be in many ways a new year for the climate movement. A year with enormous challenges to stop pipelines and other gas infrastructure from locking us into decades more of warming. But a year also with tremendous new opportunities to build more sustainable and just communities and countries, with the IRA, fights for loss and damage support, and the view from above we get with Climate TRACE.
Yes, it won't be easy. But the future remains in our hands, and if you're ready to make a difference, sign up for our email advocate list to hear about training and action opportunities to take our fight forward in 2023.