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Contributions to the Climate Crisis: The Unexpected Cost of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Aidan Kelly, Crude Accountability research intern

In addition to grave human costs, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created alarming environmental consequences, with impacts that extend far beyond the Ukrainian border and will last for generations to come. In today’s blog, we examine the environmental impacts of the war, although the scale of the damage is hard to fully track due to serious shortcomings in global emissions reporting mechanisms.

War is costly, in every sense of the word. Nine months into the Russian invasion, the citizens of Ukraine need not be reminded of this reality. Lives have been upended, forever altered, and tragically lost as a result of Russia’s war of aggression. And as if this human cost were not enough, the environmental cost of the war in Ukraine may be just as grave.

Both at land and at sea, the Russian military has inflicted irreparable damage upon Ukraine’s protected areas and wildlife; its impact will linger for years and decades to come. This harm includes direct threats to biodiversity and ecosystems. It includes toxic emissions into the air, soil, and water, and it includes environmental health impacts on people.

With COP27 ongoing in Egypt, the environmental degradation caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine will be front and center in the minds of many world leaders. Yet, the GHG emissions produced by the Russian military will remain impossible to track with confidence so long as the reporting of military emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) remains optional.

Environmental Harm Caused by the Russian War of Aggression

The importance of Ukraine’s ecosystems to the whole of Europe cannot be understated. Ukraine encompasses 35 percent of Europe’s biodiversity.1 On the Crimean Peninsula alone, there are 44 endemic plant species, which are found nowhere else on Earth.2 Yet, Russia’s war of aggression threatens to render these ecosystems unrecognizable.

At Sea
In the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, Ukrainian environmentalists estimate that upwards of 50,000 dolphins have been killed as a result of the war.3 Many military shells contain dangerous chemicals such as white phosphorus, which is practically insoluble in water and toxic in the smallest of doses.

Oil spills emanating from damaged tankers and coastal infrastructure also threaten marine wildlife.4 For example, the Russian bombardment of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol is likely to have released tens of thousands of tons of hydrogen sulfide into the Sea of Azov, with unknown ecological consequences.5

On Land
The outlook on land isn’t any better. Russian bombing of agricultural land in Ukraine’s south and east has done potentially irreparable damage to the soils in these regions, threatening Ukraine’s status as the ‘breadbasket’ of Europe and promising even greater food insecurity worldwide in the years following the war.6

Approximately 30% of the country’s protected areas, covering 3 million acres, have been ­­bombed, polluted, burned, or hit by military maneuvers, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of the Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. Damaged industrial sites and military scrap litter the landscape, polluting rivers and wetlands, and the air is thick with wildfire smoke and other toxic pollutants.7

In the Air
According to Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine’s Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, 31 million tons of CO2 emissions were released into the atmosphere during the first seven months of the war; this is roughly equivalent to the CO2 emissions produced by the whole of New Zealand annually. He predicts that post-war reconstruction could produce an additional 79 million tons of GHG emissions.8

The ‘Military Emissions Gap’

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty established in 1992 as a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change.9 It entered into force in March 1994, and its signatories include 198 countries. The treaty places the onus on developed nations, referred to as Annex I countries, to lead the way in terms of reducing emissions and transitioning towards renewable energy. These Annex I countries must submit annual inventories of their GHG emissions to the UNFCCC, while also providing information about their efforts to combat climate change.10

​​Yet, when it comes time for the Russian government to report its annual GHG emissions statistics to the UNFCCC, there can be no guarantee that its military emissions are accurately reflected in its report. The malignant impact of this ‘military emissions gap’ is seen and felt most clearly in conflict zones around the world, but it does not disappear during peacetime.

When Annex I countries report their GHG emission statistics to the UNFCCC, military emissions are often either absent altogether or aggregated and reported elsewhere, making them especially convoluted to track.

The emissions that are reported tend to be those from military fuel use, meaning that emissions generated through military equipment procurement and other supply chains are rarely, if ever, reported. This is especially significant when one considers that, on average, the emissions from an organization’s supply chain can be 5.5 times higher than its own direct emissions.11 And emissions do not cease when a country is not actively engaged in military conflict.

For example, in any given year, the US Department of Defense is responsible for more GHG emissions than entire industrialized nations. In 2017, the DOD produced more emissions than Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal; their CO2 emissions also exceeded those produced through iron and steel production in the United States that year.12

The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine lays bare the inadequacies of the UNFCCC’s current emissions reporting criteria in such a way that it is impossible to ignore. The failure of the current criteria ensures that not only do war-torn countries like Ukraine suffer immediate damage, but also, that the long-term impacts – and their costs – are not clearly documented by the international community.

The environmental and climate impact of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should be fully recorded and the UNFCCC’s emissions reporting criteria should be improved. The failure to address the ‘military emissions gap’ is a disservice to all those impacted by the war and its accompanying GHG emissions and will also continue to hamper our ability to address climate change unless it is rectified.