How Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens the planet

The war not only cost lives and destroyed the Ukrainian economy, it has also been a major environmental hazard.

214
SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus
Image Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has resulted in the deaths so far of more than 8,700 Ukrainian civilians, including more than 500 children. It has caused a massive drop in the country’s economic output, with GDP declining by 29.1 percent.

And it has had widespread consequences for the environment: inside Ukraine, in surrounding countries, and beyond.

Russia has occupied at least 25 percent of Ukraine’s renewable energy facilities and destroyed about 6 percent of the country’s renewable energy capacity. The war has rendered 40 percent of the country’s energy system at least temporarily inoperable. The air, soil, and water of Ukraine have been severely contaminated, with more than 1,000 industrial, agricultural, and maritime cases tracked by the Ukrainian NGO Centre for Environmental Initiatives “Ecoaction.” Thousands of landmines pose a continued risk to residents and farmers.

An even greater environmental catastrophe lies in wait at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest such facility in Europe. A meltdown at Zaporizhzhia on the order of the Chernobyl accident would have even greater impact than what happened on the territory of Ukraine in 1986.

“The difference is that Zaporizhzhia is close to the Black Sea and the Azov sea,” reports Yevheniia Zasiadko, the head of the climate department at Ecoaction and a climate policy expert. “So, it might also impact the whole marine ecosystem. The Russians are planting mines and exploding bombs on the territory of the Zaporizhzhia station.” The plant was built to withstand certain shocks, but the risks remain high.

Although Ukraine’s carbon footprint has likely decreased as a result of the war’s impact on the economy, the invasion has caused considerable unnecessary emissions. In collaboration with several international NGOs and the Ukrainian environment ministry, Ecoaction has calculated that the war-related greenhouse gas emissions equal the amount of carbon into the atmosphere as the country of the Netherlands or Belgium emitted over the same period. Fully half of those emissions come from the destruction of civilian infrastructure and its subsequent reconstruction.

Although the conflict is still ongoing, Ukraine has been able to rebuild in areas that aren’t too close to the conflict zones. The government has pledged to “build back better,” but there have also been enormous pressures to prioritize speed over sustainability.

“We want to build the country to be greener,” says Anna Ackermann, a board member of Ecoaction and a policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development working on the green reconstruction of Ukraine. “It’s not only about the environment. It’s also a lot about public participation—how to make sure that the communities are engaged—and how to make sure that International funds are effectively used. We shouldn’t be rebuilding roads or cities the way they were. In eastern Ukraine, where the war is still going on, these regions depended on heavy industry, coal, and so on. No one will be investing in coal anymore, and some of this heavy industry is also based on coal.”

Even as Russia’s war in Ukraine causes untold environmental consequences, it is also paradoxically pushing the world toward a tighter embrace of renewable energy. In Europe, for instance, coal consumption and carbon emissions hit their post-COVID peak in September 2022 but have been declining ever since. “Renewables and nuclear power were responsible for a record 39 percent of global electricity generation last year,” according to Fortune in 2023. “The gains came almost entirely from new wind and solar installations, which now account for a record 12 percent of global electricity generation, up from 10 percent in 2021.”

Ukraine, too, has discovered that renewable energy can be a tool of resistance. As Russia massively targeted the country’s energy infrastructure, some institutions from hospitals to schools turned to solar power, a relatively cheap and decentralized alternative, to keep the electricity on.

At a Global Just Transition webinar, Zasiadko and Ackermann discussed the many adverse environmental impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine. But they also reflected on how post-war recovery can allow Ukraine to leapfrog into a Greener future.

Russia’s devastation

It’s not easy to address environmental disasters during a war.

“The first reaction of most of the staff members of Ecoaction was that everything that we had been doing before was not relevant somehow after the Russian invasion,” recalls Anna Ackermann. “So that’s why we started to search for ways to help Ukraine and to do at least something. One thing we thought was important was to collect data about damage to the environment. This work is still going on, thanks to the support of our volunteers.”

The Ukrainian Ministry of Environment reached out to Ecoaction and other Ukrainian civil society organizations “during the second week of the war to help with monitoring because it was clear that the environmental consequences were huge,” adds Yevheniia Zasiadko. “We need to talk not only about war crimes and crimes against humanity, but also environmental impact. It’s been 14 months since the invasion, and we’ve compiled almost 1,000 cases. At the beginning, half our team at Ecoaction was involved in monitoring.”

That team divided the country up by region to assess damage to industrial facilities, energy safety, nuclear safety, and the war’s impact on marine, livestock, and waste. It has recently relied more on volunteers as well as media reports and government statistics to compile its cases.

“The largest damage in terms of cost has been to housing, buildings, industry, and infrastructure like road and rail,” Ackermann notes. “The price tag for this direct damage is $140 billion, which is much more than the annual state budget of Ukraine. This figure takes into account how much it would cost to actually rebuild Ukraine better according to European Union standards and not just the old Ukrainian standards. As the Russian invasion continues, this price is increasing every day.”

There are some obvious limitations to these assessments. For one, the Russian attacks have been so intense in some areas that it’s hard to grasp the full environmental impact. “In my hometown, we actually had thousands of missile strikes, so it was not possible to monitor missile by missile,” Zasiadko relates.

Also, there is very little information available for the Russian-occupied territories. “There is no independent journalism or any Ukrainian representatives in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions,” she continues. “We couldn’t even go to these occupied regions after 2014, so we don’t know the real situation, which is now much worse.” In that region, for instance, dozens of coal mines have been flooded since the war began in 2014, which not only renders them inoperable but threatens to pollute surrounding territory.

Then there’s the issue of demining the country. “Some experts estimate that it will take 10-15 years to demine all of Ukraine after the war,” Zasiadko reports. “That’s a minimum. In the example of the Balkans, 30 years after the wars in former Yugoslavia, there’s still heavily mined territory that poses a high risk. Russia has also mined the Black Sea, which also affects Georgia, Turkey, and Romania.”

Pollution, like mines, can have considerable future consequences. “Our team is planning a fact-funding mission to liberated territory to understand the real impact of pollution on the soil and the water and to actually understand the real risks for us,” she says, adding that contamination will eventually make its way into the food supply. “The moment when the territory is liberated people usually start to grow something on the land, even though it can be heavily polluted.”

Ukraine is a primarily agricultural country. “Soil is a very important resource for Ukraine since 40 percent of our economy comes from agriculture,” Zasiadko says. “And this soil has been heavily polluted from the military action.” Using soil samples from the Kharkhiv and Kherson regions, Ecoaction identified physical damage from vibration, radioactivity, and thermal impact, including the release of chemical pollution, all of which threatens both agricultural production and the health of surrounding communities.

France, after World War I, similarly had to deal with polluted lands, part of which was declared uninhabitable because of chemical contamination and unexploded ordnance. These became effectively nature-protected zones. “Maybe it’s good that we will have more nature-protected zones in Ukraine,” she adds. “But it won’t be because of biodiversity but because it’s too dangerous to grow anything or do anything on that land.”

Then there are the consequences of the destruction of industrial facilities. “In the east and south of Ukraine in particular we had a lot of industry,” Zasiadko points out. “When the Russians attacked, they damaged or destroyed many industrial facilities in Kharkhiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipro. During first year of the full-scale war, 426 large or medium-sized enterprises were damaged or destroyed. Probably everyone saw the pictures of the destruction in Mariupol. But this happened in other places too. We saw a huge risk of pollution from the heavy metal and chemical industries, which were bombed. Russia also targeted livestock waste facilities, which contaminated rivers and killed fish. They bombed ships and ferries in the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, which has contaminated the marine ecosystem.”

But perhaps the greatest risk lies with the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which Russian troops occupied and have kept running with Ukrainian staff working under enormous stress. “Specific experts should be working there,” she notes. “Even though the Russians brought in some nuclear experts from Russian nuclear facilities, it doesn’t mean that they actually know how to deal with the facilities, because each plant is unique. So that’s why Ukrainian people are still there, trying to keep safe the whole world from this threat. We have two types of heroes in Ukraine: those in the military and those working in the energy sector like Zaporizhzhia.”

There is also the threat of Russia weaponizing Zaporizhzhia. “Depending on weather conditions—how strongly the wind is blowing and in which direction—an explosion at the plant could affect Europe to the west or lands to the south or north,” she continues. “Experts say that we are still lucky that nothing has happened yet.”

Zasiadko laments that the international response to these nuclear risks has been weak. “Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, still doesn’t face any sanctions,” she adds. “They are still selling nuclear fuel to Europe and to other countries.”

In a report on carbon emissions associated with the war, Ecoaction and its partners looked at five sources that produced approximately 100 million tons of carbon dioxide (or their equivalent). The largest source of emissions, fully half, comes from reconstruction, followed by fires (roughly one-quarter), warfare (just under 10 percent), and the movement of refugees (only 1.4 percent). Also included in the calculations was the leakage connected to the sabotage of the Nordstream pipelines, which accounted for 15 percent of the total amount. These figures only cover the first seven months of the war, though a full-year accounting is in the works.

“In this way, Russia has attacked the whole world,” Zasiadko says. “The war is affecting the whole climate discussion.”

Building back better

Ukraine is a huge country. If it entered the European Union, it would suddenly become second largest member by territory. The war is concentrated in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country. So, different regions experience the war in different ways: some through direct ground attacks, others through aerial bombing, and still others mostly from the movement of refugees and relocation of businesses.

“In the north, some territories were temporarily occupied by Russia in February and March last year, and then liberated by the Ukrainian army,” Anna Ackermann points out. “The damage was huge, but demining is already happening and so is reconstruction. The whole world heard about Bucha, which was heavily destroyed. It’s already been rebuilt. You can actually go there and see how this is happening. Meanwhile, cities in the east are still being destroyed, even erased: Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Marinka.”

For those areas of the country destroyed by the war—through occupation or by aerial attacks—the Ukrainian government is engaged in an ongoing process of planning and reconstruction. “We are thinking about how to improve, how to enlarge, how to change the economy, and so on,” she continues. “And now the question is: who’s going to pay? Who’s going to rebuild? Ukraine will not be able to do all this. The economy has shrunk, and we don’t have enough resources because everything is going into fighting the aggressor at the moment.”

One option has been to divide the country into zones of international support. According to one map considered by the Ukrainian government, different countries would take primary responsibility for financing the reconstruction of different Ukrainian regions: Canada for Sumy, Germany for Chernihiv, and so on. With Ukraine becoming an EU candidate member in 2022, the EU is likely to take the overall lead in terms of reconstruction, with the United States and other G7 countries playing important but secondary roles. Also, as Ackermann notes, because of its candidate status, “Ukraine has to be moving toward European standards, climate neutrality goals, and other EU policies.”

Environmental standards play an essential role in this process. “We have dirty industries based on coal,” she continues. “Do we want to rebuild new heavy industries? What will happen with our coal mines? We have to transition to something else, to another type of economy. NGOs are trying to shape the discussion of this transition. But it’s progressing slowly.”

The essential challenge is to balance the need to build back sooner and the desire to build back better. “No country after a war has been built back that much better,” Ackermann observes. “No country was thinking really long term. Many of our colleagues from European countries where cities were rebuilt after the Second World War say that it was more about mass production and building back faster, definitely not about better.”

The motto “build back better” applies across the economy. “Here in Ukraine,” she continues, “we will have to transition from fossil-fuel power plants to renewables, from energy-inefficient buildings (of which we have a plenty) to using heat pumps and improving the energy efficiency of our building stock, to using new types of transportation.”

Ukraine has come to a new appreciation of renewables as a result of the war. “If we think about a destroyed thermal power plant, to fix it takes months or even years,” Ackermann reports. “But with solar panels, if several are shelled, you can move them around. You can quickly fix them and in just a few weeks the array works again. Some Ukrainians had their lives saved because their communication was sustained during the occupation. Thanks to the solar panels on their roofs, they could call their relatives to say that they were fine despite the blackouts when there there was no electricity.”

Ecoaction realized during the early days of reconstruction that it was important to provide concrete examples of the importance of renewables and Green building techniques. “Together with other NGOs, we worked to rebuild the energy system of a hospital in the north of Kyiv, not far from Bucha, in the city of Horenka,” she relates. “It’s a small hospital that was shelled by the Russian army. It was repaired. Then we put solar solar panels on top with energy storage and heat pumps. Ukraine can get quite cold in the winter, so we need good heating. This system also works during cloudy weather. It started up in January this year, and we calculated how much it actually costs. Now we have infographics to show to the government and our international partners. We brought them there to demonstrate why It was important.”

To replace destroyed energy infrastructure, outside donors sent diesel generators to Ukraine. “This was really critical and important,” she continues. “Running these generators is super expensive, in addition they are usually noisy and polluting. So, we wanted to show how renewables could be part of the critical infrastructure for hospitals, for water supply facilities, for kindergartens and schools that restarted their work recently. We are working with international partners to scale this up as much as possible, and the government also became interested in having this sort of installation around Ukraine. For us today it’s less about climate friendliness and more about resilience and security.”

Ackermann sees lessons here for the rest of the world as well. “These stories of resilience can affect a lot of people and show that these systems can work well,” she says. That includes building model cities that can inspire other countries. “What about having the first climate-neutral city in the whole of Europe?” she asks. “We’re working with coal mining communities, and they’d love to be this kind of pilot. It’s very sad, but making a city that was completely destroyed climate neutral is easier than remaking an intact city.”

One major obstacle to reconstruction efforts is labor. More than two million Ukrainians lost their jobs after Russia invaded last year with the destruction of industries and the mass displacement of people. At the same time, the military has absorbed many able-bodied personnel, and millions more fled the country. All of this has contributed to a shortage of skilled workers in the construction sector.

“We have to think about people coming back, and not just coming back but returning to rebuilt houses and roads and places to work,” Ackermann observes. “That’s why rebuilding Ukraine is also about rethinking what kind of economy we are building.”

It’s also about what place Ukraine will occupy in Europe. Will it just be a source of raw materials or agricultural goods?  “We have to be an equal partner in this discussion,” she continues. “We have to be higher in the value chains of the whole of the EU. If we talk about building a green economy, we could be producing heat pumps that everybody needs now in Europe and beyond. We could be producing high-standard energy-efficient materials. Ukraine is already producing parts for wind turbines. There was a big factory in Kramatorsk, now quite close to the front line, and this production moved to the western part of the country. Together with German companies, they are planning to enlarge. This is the kind of example we need to expand upon. The question is, how many countries want to have Ukraine as a competitor? Probably no one, so Ukraine has to be fighting for this.”

Part of the rebuilding process is environmental restoration. Ecoaction is currently researching the new kinds of pollution associated with the war and how best to restore soil and water. Then there’s the question of dealing with military waste, which the country has little experience in addressing. “We don’t have the human resources to deal with this issue,” Zasiadko laments.

Another key part is democratic participation. “One of the best reforms in Ukraine before the war was decentralization,” she continues. “During the first period of the war, the cities survived because of this decentralization. During the last year, people and local authorities actually felt that they can decide for the communities. They have their own money, they can make decisions. And these cities are looking for partners to rebuild better. One of the best example is Irpin,” a liberated suburb of Kyiv that The New York Times has dubbed a “laboratory for rebuilding.”

International environmental solidarity

The countries of the Global North have sided with Ukraine in its struggle against Russia. Much of the rest of the world condemned Russia’s invasion but has not levied sanctions against Russia or provided military support to Ukraine. Could environmental solidarity—around climate debt, for instance—serve as the basis for greater cooperation between Ukraine and the Global South?

“I can understand why there is less support from the Global South, which depends from country to country,” Anna Ackermann observes. “Before February 24, 2022, most people associated Ukraine with post-Soviet countries, including Russia. Then, everybody started discovering us, and we are also discovering the world. Now our diplomats started reaching out to secure international support.”

Russia, on the other hand, has long worked around the world to cultivate ties. “Promoting their culture, setting up embassies everywhere,” she continues. “They’ve had the resources. And we see the results of this kind of strategic work. Unfortunately, Ukraine did not do that.”

“Climate-related and energy transition-related issues offer some potential links,” Ackermann points out. “In terms of the production of critical raw minerals needed for the energy transition, Ukraine is in the very same position as many countries of the global South.”

Ukraine, like many countries in the Global South, is burdened with a lot of debt. “I’ve heard discussions that perhaps this debt should be forgotten,” she notes. “But in fact it keeps increasing. We hear a lot about countries claiming that they give a lot of assistance to Ukraine, but we never know if it’s a loan or a grant. Probably only our government knows all of the details.”

Ackerman understands why the government solicits all types of foreign investments. “Government officials see the very bad situation our economy is in, so their only thought is how to get any investments at all when there is no insurance, no guarantees for anyone,” she observes. “There is already big interest for reconstruction. Hundreds of German companies are in the queue to enter once the war is over, and the same applies to Italian companies and many others.”

Looking ahead

Ecoaction has developed a detailed call to action for the international community around energy and environmental issues. At the top of the list is “strengthening Ukraine’s emergency response capacity” and demilitarizing and de-occupying the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Ecoaction needs help in its monitoring efforts. And this includes building up their corps of experts, a problem that goes back at least to 2014 when the war with Russia started. The lack of expertise applies in particular to addressing environmental consequences such as land mines.

The call to action isn’t just focused on the here and now. It calls for holding Russia responsible for all of the consequences of the war and developing a global environment peace and security agenda that emerges from the wreckage of the conflict.

Nor should the international community wait before committing to long-term projects. “We don’t have to wait until the war is over,” Yevheniia Zasiadko says. “Reconstruction is happening now, so it’s important to have this vision of green sustainability.”

The war has had even larger climate implications. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine actually led to an acceleration of the energy transition as countries realized their dependence on fossil fuels,” Anna Ackermann observes. “This very tragic situation has led to many changes in climate policies—in the EU, of course, but also around the world. It revealed the vulnerability of countries to global agricultural trade, so hopefully countries will work on increasing sustainable domestic food production.”

And then there’s the link between climate and security. “We should work to combine security issues with the environmental and climate agenda,” Ackermann concludes. “This war revealed so many things that we hadn’t seen, that we didn’t want to see, so we’d closed our eyes. Now they are revealed, and we have to be working on that.”

FALL FUNDRAISER

If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.

COMMENTS