Warfare is not only traumatic for people and infrastructure but also has a large impact on the natural environment. The environmental damages of the Ukraine war will likely be be so great that even neighboring countries will suffer their effects.
WARSAW— The infrastructure used to store and transport oil is often a prime target during war, and the resulting spills and fires can contribute hugely to greenhouse gas emissions.
During the 1991 Gulf War, burning oil wells contributed to more than 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, which had long-term and wide-ranging consequences, including high levels of soot deposits and increased melting of icebergs. Carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere from burning forests, peat bogs and wetlands, set alight by shelling, also cause large environmental costs, as does the increased traffic of people and vehicles that come with refugees and humanitarian aid.
The war in Ukraine is no exception. A new report by Climate Focus, “Climate Damage Caused by the War in Ukraine," shows that military and wartime activities have contributed as much as 100 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions — equal to the entire annual emissions of the Netherlands.
Rebuilding infrastructure, mainly housing, destroyed during the war is responsible for nearly half of these emissions. In some places, cleaning and rebuilding efforts began as soon as Russian occupiers left. Since last spring, for example, the city of Bucha has become unrecognizable. The city has been equipped with new sidewalks, repaired streets and new lighting fixtures. Projects to rebuild housing and highways are ongoing. The country has also built several new roads and bridges.
The politics of rebuilding
The Kakhovka Reservoir continues to lose water following the dam explosion.
According to the Ukrainian Vice Minister of Infrastructure, Oleksandra Azarkhina, such developments are necessary to address the humanitarian crisis and prevent a global food crisis. “Renewing the main transportation routes is also critical to continue supplying our front lines," she added.
“Are we aware that what we have built can once again be destroyed? Yes, but that is a risk that we have to take. Honestly speaking, rebuilding is also a part of our resistance," she says.
After the first phase of the Russian invasion and the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia began to target the country’s energy infrastructure. Russian forces compensated for their failures in direct confrontations with the Ukrainian military by hitting civilian targets. The effects of this were directly felt by civilians, who were left without water or electricity, especially in the fall and winter of 2022.
Although much reconstruction work has already been done, the vast majority will be undertaken only once the war ends. Still, the cost and energy needs can be estimated and these projects, though critical, will negatively impact the climate.
A nation on fire
According to the report, one-fourth of all emissions associated with the war come from fires. Satellite images allow us to observe their dynamics in real-time and with high accuracy. As the war in Ukraine has raged, the greatest emissions from fires have been reported in Eastern Ukraine, the area most ravaged by conflict. Fires there have destroyed farms and forests, taking nearly half a million hectares of Ukrainian land in the first seven months of the war alone. This figure is nearly 40 times higher than over the same period one year earlier.
Methane leaks were another major source of emissions, largely after attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea near the coasts of Denmark and Sweden. These attacks led to the release of over 300,000 tons of gas. Emissions of this size are roughly equivalent to one-third of the CO2 emitted by Denmark annually.
Pipeline leaks were registered by satellites on Sept. 30, 2022, emitting 79,000 kg of methane gas per hour. “This is the equivalent of burning over 2 million pounds (0.9 million kilos) of coal in the course of an hour,” states the GHGSat portal.
When it comes to warfare alone, emissions measured from the start of the war to Nov. 2022 were equivalent to 9 million tons of greenhouse gasses. These came from copious amounts of fuel used by air forces, combat vehicles and those released during ammunition production. These emissions are also linked to “the movement of vehicles from their permanent bases to railway stations and from railway stations to temporary bases, training activities, the supply and maintenance of temporary bases, the movement of troops and equipment by rail, and the relocation of navy ships," according to the Climate Damage Report.
A significant number of emissions has also occurred due to the necessary increase in transport, mainly by those fleeing war. In the first stages of the war, this mainly involved transportation by cars, trains and buses. As the war continues, air travel has become more common. The need to deliver humanitarian and medical aid to Ukraine has also generated a lot of movement. Though it is not the leading cause, this increase in transportation accounts for some of the wartime-related emissions.
Maritime borders are only a suggestion
Ukraine has a coastline of over 2.5 million kilometers, which extends to the basins of the Black and Azov seas. As the waters of the Dnipro River flow into water reservoirs, so too do the large amounts of pollutants that the river carries. During the war, along with damages to water and sanitation infrastructure, a lack of power supply and attacks on power plants, several toxic pollutants have leached into the river, including those from ammunition and significant amounts of unfiltered wastewater.
Experts from the Conflict and Environment Observatory point to several attacks in Mykolaiv — a city along the River Boh, which contains a strategic port flowing into the ocean. Industrial facilities located on the river and in the port’s vicinity were shelled. Among those attacked was an aluminum refinery surrounded by fuel tanks and other environmentally harmful compounds. Satellite images show a leak from the factory — most likely bauxite — a compound containing heavy metals and even trace amounts of radioactive elements. In the summer, as a result of damage to the water supply network, discharges of untreated sewage got into the river as well.
Last October and November, the river was also polluted by leaks of sunflower oil and firefighting chemicals after the attack ignited and destroyed oil tanks in the port terminal. Following drone attacks on Oct. 17, “Thousands of tonnes of liquid poured from damaged tanks,” according to the local press, and “rivers of sunflower oil flowed through the streets, making their way to sewers and water reservoirs.” The incidents also proved fatal for many birds, whose habitats were decimated as a result of polluted water.
At sea, attacks on ports, on ships and on coastal towns have also affected the surrounding marine ecosystems. Some of these events have left physical signs along the water in the form of oil spills. Such was the case with the sunken cruiser "Moscow," believed to have sunk in water 45-50 meters deep, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory. “The wrecks may become a permanent source of pollution for the local environment," the observatory wrote.
Munitions entering the seas and their remnants flowing from land contain toxic compounds, especially in explosives.
The impact of wrecks and munitions lying on the bottom of the natural environment is studied by, among others, Edmund Maser, the director of the Institute of Toxicology at the University Clinic in Germany. Currently, over 1.6 million tons of munitions lie at the bottom of the German part of the Baltic Sea according to Deutsche Welle. As they rust, these former military supplies release toxic chemicals into the water. These, in turn, end up in the organisms of fish, seabirds and people.
A similar problem will now affect the Black and Azov Seas. Munitions entering the seas and their remnants flowing from land contain toxic compounds, especially in explosives. As Maser tells Deutsche Welle, "TNT impairs the ability of organisms to reproduce, grow and develop," while cadmium and arsenic are carcinogenic, and mercury and lead to developmental defects. If these compounds enter the surrounding soil, they can also impair the development of plants.
The greatest dangers to the marine ecosystem of the entire Black and Azov Seas are the floating mines along the waters whose moorings can break off during storms or as a result of corrosion. In Sept. 2022, a total of 28 mines were destroyed along the Western part of the Black Sea. Those that were not recovered by minesweepers exploded along Georgian beaches, at breakwaters in Turkey or on the waters of Romania. These mines can also harm aquatic animals and leak toxic substances into the water. They can injure people, and, due to last year’s mine threats, fishermen along the Turkish coast were banned from fishing at night.
Nature knows no bounds
Sometimes warfare can affect the natural environment, even in remote corners of the world. This can come to affect species of migratory birds and fish. The current situation in Ukraine is no different.
In a publication on the condition of fish in the Black Sea, Romanian scientists assume that, as of the start of the war, the Black Sea sprat, a small fish, could not make its annual migration to the north-eastern part of the basin for spawning. The war also disrupted the migration of the barbat, which passes through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov in springtime before returning for the winter along the Crimean coast. Other species have experienced similar disturbances, which has an effect on the numbers of fish caught, often in faraway corners of the seas.
There is one point of optimism about the climate crisis in the wake of the Russian invasion: the gradual abandonment of fossil fuels imported from Russia. The war has accelerated and forced changes in our energy mix. Last year in Europe, both wind and solar power provided more electricity than any other energy source.
This allowed Europe to survive the crisis caused by restrictions in the supply of Russian gas, as well as a decline in hydropower caused by drought and unexpected interruptions to nuclear power supplies.
According to the research company Ember, solar energy production has increased by a record 24% in 2022, which helped Europe avoid €10 billion in gas costs. And from May to August of last year, solar energy came to comprise 12% of all energy in the European Union.