Environment: Enormous environmental consequences of the war in Ukraine

Jul 2, 2022
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The conflict in Ukraine is destroying environments and not only in the war zone. Cartoon characters combat ecofascism and Global South nations outline their expectations of November’s COP meeting in Egypt.

Environmental consequences of the Ukrainian-Russian war

I’ll risk the speculation that the Battles of Thermopylae and Hastings, and even Waterloo, had little if any lasting effect on the local, let alone the wider, environment (happy to be corrected). Clearly that cannot be said of the warfare of the last century, although I doubt that anyone paid much attention at the time to the environmental problems caused by the second world war and I don’t think the environmental effects of Agent Orange caused General Westmoreland much insomnia.

A group of environmental activists, experts and journalists has established the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences (UWEC) Work Group to collect, verify, analyse and share information about the war, produce expert analyses and propose solutions to address the global humanitarian and environmental crises the war is creating and exacerbating.

The first edition of UWEC’s newsletter identifies a range of environmental and humanitarian problems, for instance:

  • Greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions arising from the bombardment of oil refineries, gas pipelines and chemical factories.
  • Land and water pollution caused by munitions, military vehicles and destroyed water and sewage treatment facilities.
  • Flooding of agricultural land and dwellings and disruption of ecosystems following the destruction of dams. (After the war, consideration should be given to whether a damaged dam is any longer needed and whether there is an opportunity to restore the original riparian ecosystems.)
  • Relaxation of environmental standards in favour of strengthening defences and saving the economy not only in Ukraine and Russia but also in neighbouring countries and countries affected by the economic consequences of the war.
  • Within Ukraine and other countries, one response to food shortages is likely to be the opening up of forests, grasslands and protected areas to agriculture, with heavy impacts on biodiversity.
  • Termination of international environmental research collaborations involving Russia in the Arctic.
  • The enormous quantities of materials (e.g. sand, concrete, stone and wood – all with a high environmental footprint) that will be required to rebuild the destroyed cities and infrastructure. (Again, opportunities to undertake reconstruction in sustainable ways should be explored.)
  • The war’s disruption of agricultural output and distribution affects not only the Ukrainians themselves but also the countries to which they have been exporting vast quantities of grains and which now face the possibility of food shortages, famines and health consequences.
  • International sanctions are also reducing Russia’s exports of food. It’s estimated that the reduced food exports from Russia and Ukraine could increase the number of malnourished people worldwide by 8-13 million.
  • The possibility that Russia, currently the fourth biggest greenhouse gas emitter, will withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

It goes without saying that it’s very difficult and often impossible to collect much of the necessary information during the conflict and that only once hostilities end will it be possible to measure and assess the true environmental impact. In the meantime, use is being made of satellite data, news broadcasts and social media.

A summary of the health, humanitarian and environmental consequences of the war has recently been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Cartoon characters explain ecofascism

I’d never heard of Thanos, the powerful superhuman villain who planned to wipe out half of the population to save the planet, but younger climate activists are probably well acquainted with the Marvel Comics character and his exploits. The ‘Anti-Creep Climate Initiative’ has co-opted Thanos and some of his enemies to explain ecofascism (‘environmentalism that accepts violence and reinforces existing systems of power and inequality’) and explode some of its myths, for instance that:

  • Overpopulation is an environmental crisis and drastic population decline is necessary to reach climate goals and save humanity;
  • Humans are naturally selfish and greedy and are doomed to deplete the planet’s resources;
  • Humans are like a virus or cancer and climate change and Covid are nature’s way of fighting back;
  • Cities are the problem. They are dirty, overcrowded centres of pollution whose inhabitants don’t appreciate nature and lack self-sufficiency skills;
  • Strong borders protect countries from being overrun by immigrants and refugees who will overburden the countries’ scarce resources;
  • Environmental and social collapse are inevitable and desirable to prompt change.

Strategies suggested for combating ecofascism include: call out the myths when you see them, support the return of private and public land to Indigenous people, demilitarise and abolish borders, support anti-war movements, and support young people’s climate movements.

The world needs more lithium

Battery storage has thrust the relatively unknown lithium into the public consciousness. The global demand for the third element in the periodic table is projected to increase 15-fold between 2020 and 2040 if governments make good on their promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Its use in batteries is projected to increase 50-fold. Most lithium is currently mined, Australia producing well over 50%. But the search is on for new sources (for instance underground water) and new ways of extracting it (for instance using magnets).

Of course, before you think about investing your super in lithium you might want to consider whether lithium-ion technology will still be the mainstay of batteries in 20 years.

The African COP

COP 27 will take place in Egypt in November. During June there was an inter-COP meeting in Bonn, Germany. It’s at these less-publicised meetings that lots of the details that are approved (or not) at the actual COP are bashed out. It’s also where countries and alliances formulate their demands.

Allied for Climate Transitions by 2025 (ACT2025) is a consortium of nations from the Global South. It has laid out five demands for defining success in Egypt:

  1. Bridge the gap between mitigation goals and promises and mitigation action

The nations’ commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 could limit warming to 1.9oC (still considerably above 1.5) but their actions are way off delivering even 1.9 degrees. Contrary to what they agreed in Paris, some countries (including Australia until recently) have not lifted their emissions reduction targets since they first submitted them in 2015. All countries, particularly the rich developed ones of the Global North and the big emitters, must lift their goals and develop strategies to match what the science tells us needs to happen. This includes accelerating the energy transition and phasing out fossil fuels.

  1. Deliver the money promised to help vulnerable nations

Developed nations, particularly the G7, must provide clear targets and a roadmap for delivering US$600 billion between now and 2025 to help developing nations with mitigation, adaptation and coping with loss and damage. The finance needs to come from both governments and the private sector.

  1. More support for building adaptation

Every additional tenth of a degree of global warming increases the threats to people, species and ecosystems, yet many countries and communities lack the resources to manage climate change’s current impact, let alone what’s coming down the track. A greater proportion of the finance made available by rich to vulnerable nations must be directed to building adaptation and resilience.

  1. Financial and technical assistance for loss and damage

For years, vulnerable nations have been arguing that rich industrialised nations with high historical emissions should recognise their responsibility for the loss and damage suffered as a result of climate change by poor nations who have contributed little to the problem. Needless to say, the rich have strenuously rejected this argument. Baby steps forward were made in Glasgow last year and these need to be turned into a stampede in Egypt.

  1. Implement the Paris Rulebook

Nation’s promises need to be followed with action and action needs to be followed by measurement, transparency and accountability to ensure that promises are being met and goals are being achieved. This is the purpose of the Paris Rulebook, already developed but largely ignored.

All these matters will require delicate international negotiations over the next five months but decisions and action cannot be deferred by more multi-year discussions. Time is running out to keep warming under 2oC – we are told that staying under 1.5 degrees is still technically feasible but surely no one still believes that we will actually stay under 1.5.

Engineering beavers

Not being a trained naturalist or biologist, I’d never come across the term ‘ecosystem engineers’ until a few months ago. Now I see it almost everywhere I look. The dams of Eurasian beavers raise water levels and create freshwater ponds that provide habitats and act like moats to protect the denizens from predators. The result is not just an in-ground pool for beaver kits but also greater ecosystem health and biodiversity and a sanctuary for the protection of rare and threatened species, including of birds and bats.

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