Israel’s war on Gaza: Environmental destruction and climate impact revealed

The report, examining the first four months of the conflict, reveals that the emissions required to reconstruct tens of thousands of buildings in Gaza will have a catastrophic impact on the climate.

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Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza has not only caused a devastating human toll but also significant environmental damage, according to a study published Thursday. The report, examining the first four months of the conflict, reveals that the emissions required to reconstruct tens of thousands of buildings in Gaza will have a catastrophic impact on the climate.

The study estimates that between 156,000 to 200,000 buildings have been destroyed or damaged in the Gaza Strip during the conflict. The climate cost of rebuilding these structures is greater than the annual emissions of the world’s 135 lowest-emitting countries combined, as stated in the report published in the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). The study is currently under peer review.

The scale of destruction in Gaza is unprecedented. Homes, schools, universities, hospitals, mosques, bakeries, and critical infrastructure like water and sewage plants have been severely damaged or completely destroyed. The rebuilding process is expected to generate as much as 60 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), an amount comparable to the total 2022 emissions of countries such as Portugal and Sweden. This level of emissions is more than twice the annual emissions of Afghanistan.

The immediate emissions from wartime activities have also been substantial. Most of these emissions came from flights by Israeli fighter jets and U.S. cargo planes that supplied weapons, fuel, and other supplies. There were 244 round-trip cargo flights from the U.S. to Israel during the four-month study period. The aerial and ground attacks generated greater emissions than the annual carbon footprint of 26 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations, including Vanuatu and Greenland.

“While the world’s attention is rightly focused on the humanitarian catastrophe, the climate consequences of this conflict are also catastrophic,” said Ben Neimark, a co-author of the study and a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. The study emphasizes that the long-term reconstruction efforts will have the largest carbon cost, exacerbating the global climate emergency.

Patrick Bigger, another co-author and research director at the Climate and Community Project, has called for a ceasefire and an end to apartheid in Palestine. He argues that the “climate crisis in Palestine cannot be detached from the Israeli occupation.”

Beyond the immediate climate emissions, the environmental impacts of the war extend to the destruction of Gaza’s agricultural sites. By March, the Israeli military had destroyed more than 2,000 agricultural sites, including 40% of all used farmland. This destruction has been described as a “deliberate act of ecocide” by the London-based research group Forensic Architecture.

Humanitarian groups have suggested that the destruction is deliberate, with starvation being used as a “weapon of war,” as repeatedly argued by Human Rights Watch. Gaza’s water, soil, and air have also been devastated, further compounding the environmental crisis.

The role of Western countries in funding and enabling Israel’s military actions has drawn significant criticism. Zena Agha, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, highlighted the hypocrisy of Western nations. “Quite apart from the unspeakable destruction in Gaza and across Palestine, this report lays bare the hypocrisy of Western nations who moralize about the perils of climate breakdown and the responsibility of every nation to protect the planet—all the while funding, aiding, and enabling the Israeli regime’s catastrophic war and its implications for those affected by ongoing and future climate change,” she said.

Legal experts have accused Israel of committing “domicide”—the mass destruction of dwellings to make the territory uninhabitable. The continuing war, coupled with climate-related extreme weather events, jeopardizes Palestinian rights further. Astrid Puentes, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, stated, “One of the serious consequences of the war in Gaza has been the massive violation of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment… which represent a serious risk to life and the enjoyment of all other rights.”

The SSRN study likely underestimates the climate impact of the war due to factors that could not be precisely accounted for, especially given military secrecy regarding emissions. However, new findings released by the United Nations Satellite Center indicate that the number of destroyed buildings in Gaza may have been slightly overestimated in the study. About 137,000 buildings had been damaged, destroyed, or possibly destroyed by May 3, which, though less than the SSRN estimate, is still more than half of the buildings in Gaza.

“As long as this war continues, the implications will be exacerbated with horrific consequences on emissions, climate change, and hindering climate action in Gaza,” said Hadeel Ikhmais, head of the climate change office at the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority. The region, already experiencing serious climate impacts, faces an even grimmer future if the conflict persists.

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