Russia’s war is, first and foremost, a calamity for the people of Ukraine, with large parts of the population thrown into poverty and displacement. But both in Ukraine and around the world, the war is also increasing vulnerability to climate change, proliferating security risks, complicating efforts on decarbonization and hindering multilateral climate action.
Ukraine already faced challenges in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Damage wrought on the country’s environment and infrastructure by the war has only made these challenges harder to overcome. Meanwhile, the war has led to unprecedented volatility in global food prices, increasing hunger and deprivation in other parts of the world. It has also upended global energy politics, with short-term decisions by policymakers increasing the risk of new carbon emissions being locked in for the long term.
This research paper explores the potential consequences of Russia’s war for climate action, food supply and energy security, both for Ukraine and globally. Its concluding chapter features recommendations on how, with international support, Ukraine can rebuild its damaged infrastructure and leap forward to a more resilient, cleaner and low-emission future.
- Russia’s war against Ukraine is, first and foremost, a calamity for the people of Ukraine. But both in Ukraine and around the world, the war is also increasing vulnerability to climate change, proliferating long-term security risks, complicating efforts on decarbonization and hindering multilateral climate action.
- Ukraine already faced challenges in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The invasion has made the country even more vulnerable, having damaged the environment, destroyed infrastructure and thrown large parts of the population into poverty and displacement.
- The effects of the war are being felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders, particularly in terms of food and energy security. Russia’s on–off blockade of Ukraine’s food exports via the Black Sea and the impact of sanctions on Russia’s own food and fertilizer exports have led to unprecedented volatility in global food prices. That volatility has increased hunger and deprivation.
- The war has also upended global energy politics. Energy independence, belatedly viewed as a precondition to political security, is now a renewed concern for policymakers. What this means for climate action is uncertain. In the short term, new carbon emissions risk being locked in, as worries over energy independence could encourage countries to delay or cancel action on reducing their carbon footprints. But Russia’s actions in fact provide a compelling argument for phasing down reliance on fossil fuels.
- Ultimately, the war may prove a milestone in an emerging period of ‘deglobalization’ that could make collective action on global challenges, including climate change, more difficult. But much depends on actions taken now. Post-war, with international help, Ukraine can rebuild its damaged infrastructure and leap forward to a more resilient, cleaner and low-emission future. Meanwhile, it is more important than ever to promote the necessary multilateral cooperation that can help the world to avert dangerous climate change and adapt to its effects.
The cascading impacts of war in Ukraine are affecting people not just in Ukraine but around the world.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia may have begun on 24 February 2022, but it was preceded by the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in early 2014 and more than eight years of de facto occupation in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.
The disastrous human and environmental toll of conflict in Ukraine is having significant geopolitical ramifications, including not least growing fears over the use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the war is increasing vulnerability to climate change in Ukraine and around the world, and complicating collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the war is an immediate existential threat for Ukraine, climate change is a short-, medium- and long-term threat globally, particularly for the most vulnerable, including women, children and the poor.
About this paper
This research paper is written by a group of authors with expertise in Russian and Ukrainian politics, climate security and climate governance, environmental governance and history. It was originally drafted as an independent contribution to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s work on climate security, but has now been updated and modified for a wider audience.
The purpose of this paper is to assess the impacts of the war in Ukraine on vulnerability to climate change, its effects on global food security and energy provision, and to consider what the war means for the prospects for action on climate change both in Ukraine and globally.
02 Increasing Ukraine’s vulnerability to climate change
The war is degrading Ukraine’s capacity to cope with climate change.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia is the biggest and bloodiest land war in Europe since the Second World War. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), by 16 July 2023,287 Ukrainian civilians had been killed in the invasion and another 16,384 civilians reported injured. However, OHCHR admits that the real numbers for civilian casualties are almost certainly higher. This is before counting the tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers killed and injured in the war, a toll that the US intelligence services estimated in April 2023 at 15,500–17,500 killed and 124,500–131,000 wounded.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has also led to the highest number of refugees in Europe since the late 1940s. The UN has registered over 6.2 million Ukrainian refugees across the world, while a further 5.9 million people are displaced within Ukraine (down from 6 million at the end of 2022). Women and children comprise 90 per cent of refugees and 60 per cent of the internally displaced.
In addition to the human impact, the war has devastated Ukraine’s economy. Ukraine’s GDP shrank by 30.3 per cent in 2022, while inflation hit 26.6 per cent in real terms. This situation is leading to perhaps one of the fastest descents into poverty experienced in modern times: the number of people living in poverty increased almost five-fold, from 5.5 per cent to 24.5 per cent of the population, between 2021 and the end of 2022, with an extra 7.1 million Ukrainians falling below the global poverty line.
Ukraine’s GDP shrank by 30.3 per cent in 2022, while inflation in the country hit 26.6 per cent in real terms.
Alongside all of this, the war is having a ruinous impact on Ukraine’s environment and undermining the country’s ability to tackle the effects of climate change. Russia’s missiles, drones and artillery shells have damaged water infrastructure, destroyed energy installations and flattened entire cities. Shelling, unexploded ordnance and landmines have rendered large areas of agricultural land unusable. Fighting and military activity in Ukraine’s forests and greenbelts have damaged water catchments and forests. This damage, along with the rising occurrence and severity of droughts, will increase the risk of large wildfires. It is estimated that the area of forest burned in wildfires was 25 times larger in 2022 than in 2021.
Ukraine was vulnerable to the impacts of climate change even before the destruction wrought by the 2022 invasion. It was struggling with the legacy of economic and environmental damage from the 2014 conflict, as well as poverty, high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.
Climate change models predict that Ukraine will face rising temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, more frequent floods, changes in the onset of seasons and rising sea levels along its Black Sea coast. Water security is a particular concern, given that Ukraine is one of the least water self-sufficient countries in Europe. Moderate- and high-emission scenarios foresee the scorching of agricultural land, accompanied by decreases in wheat yields – affecting one of Ukraine’s most important exports. At the same time, the overall decrease in river flows is likely to aggravate pollution and worsen water quality, while rising temperatures will cause wetlands and lakes in the Polissya area and in northern Ukraine to dry up, which could lead to more frequent fires and deteriorating air quality.
Even if the war were to end tomorrow, it has already significantly undermined Ukraine’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Ukraine’s scope to focus on anything other than day-to-day survival is limited. Many of the experts and professionals who would have otherwise been engaged in addressing the impacts of climate change have either joined the war effort or fled the country. And the war has drained the national finances, as it has the country’s human resources. The government allocated 50 per cent of its 2023 budget to the war effort; its budget deficit in 2023 is forecast to reach $38 billion. With reconstruction costs estimated at anywhere between €411 billion and €750 billion, Ukraine’s fiscal position is unlikely to improve in the near future.
03 Quiet weapons, heard around the world
Energy and food – and even Ukraine’s harsh winter climate – have been weaponized in this war.
One of the first responses by many European countries to the invasion was to phase down imports of Russian oil and gas, as they sought to exert financial pressure on Russia. Meanwhile, Russia slashed energy supplies to many countries across Europe in an attempt to sap their support for Ukraine and to retaliate for sanctions.
Following Russia’s failed attempt to capture Kyiv early in the invasion, its forces began attacking energy installations across Ukraine. Since October 2022, nearly all large energy facilities across the country have been attacked by missiles or drones. The clear intent behind these attacks was to destroy the Ukrainian economy, weaponize Ukraine’s harsh winter climate and freeze the Ukrainian population into submission.
Food has also become a tool of political influence, such that former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev referred to it as Russia’s ‘quiet, but formidable, weapon’. Russia’s early blockades of Ukraine’s Black Sea export routes – coupled with Western sanctions on Russia’s exports – led to rapid rises in food prices, with direct impacts on hunger around the world. The resulting price rises for basic foodstuffs have exposed new fault lines in the global food system and contributed to growing tensions in geopolitical alliances.
The invasion has led to unprecedented spikes in global energy and food prices, which have created a cost-of-living crisis that is impoverishing millions and further increased vulnerability around the world. High energy prices hit the poor hardest. People below the international poverty line of $2.15 a day typically spend more than one-quarter of their non-food consumption on energy. One study estimated that an additional 78 million–141 million people worldwide could be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the war’s impact on energy prices.
Russia’s strategy of ‘energy blackmail’ failed – at least during the winter of 2022–23. Ukraine successfully resisted Russia’s attacks and survived. Neither did the rest of Europe run out of energy, in part due to concerted action by policymakers to find alternative suppliers and to encourage energy efficiency measures. But direct losses to the Ukrainian energy sector were substantial: by March 2023, estimates of the damage to utilities and district heating were at least $10.6 billion. The average Ukrainian household had to endure five cumulative weeks without power during the winter of 2022.
Ultimately, the war is likely to increase the longer-term impacts of climate change in Ukraine and beyond by compounding existing, associated causes of insecurity – in particular, food insecurity, economic stagnation, resource insecurity and large-scale human displacement – while reducing the fiscal space to mitigate emissions and adapt to climate change.
04 Upended energy politics
The war’s profound effects on global energy markets have mixed implications for the green transition.
Beyond its immediate impact on the battlefield and in the cities of Ukraine, the war is affecting global energy politics in ways that will likely reverberate for decades. The war has served as a ‘clarifying moment’ that has exposed the downsides of global interdependencies, particularly for countries like Germany whose economic model relied on low-cost sources of Russian gas. Indeed, it has made the Russian energy resources that much of Europe depended on not only unreliable but unwelcome.
Global prices were high before the invasion due to a mismatch of supply and demand, but the actions of Russia made a difficult situation worse. In 2021, Russia was responsible for about 12 per cent of global energy production. It was a major exporter of fossil fuels, accounting (by volume) for around 5.5 per cent of global coal production, 11 per cent of global oil production and 17 per cent of the global gas supply in 2021. The European Union (EU) was particularly dependent on Russian piped gas.
The onset of war resulted in a steep short-term jump in energy prices: in nominal terms, crude oil prices increased by 350 per cent from April 2020 to April 2022 – the largest increase for any equivalent two-year period since the 1970s. Coal and gas prices all reached historic highs. Higher gas prices, particularly in Europe, increased the cost of electricity for consumers, with the average household prices across the EU rising from €23.5 per 100 kilowatt hours (kWh) in the second half of 2021 to €28.4 per 100 kWh in the same period of 2022.
However, a combination of supply diversification (particularly via the import of liquefied natural gas – LNG – from the US and other countries), an active demand-reduction and energy efficiency campaign, and a milder winter led to greater confidence and increased availability of gas in the spring of 2023, allowing for stable and, in some cases, lower gas and electricity prices in Europe.
Higher energy prices during 2022 and at the start of 2023 strained national finances at the same time as inflation was diluting consumers’ buying power. Many countries introduced price support measures to blunt the impact on their consumers. International Energy Agency data suggest that more than $500 billion in extra spending was committed to reduce energy bills in 2022, mainly in advanced economies. These measures may have helped individuals in the short term, but they came at a long-term cost in terms of mounting debt and fewer resources to invest in priorities such as adaptation to climate change. Despite efforts by governments to insulate consumers from global price rises, the first year of the war nearly doubled household energy costs around the world.
This is mixed news for the green transition. On the one hand, the invasion could accelerate a global shift to green energy and greater energy efficiency.
Many politicians are realizing that ambitious climate action is necessary for energy security, and that energy security is a precondition for political security. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated to many countries exactly why they must reduce their reliance on fossil fuels from unreliable partners. Investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency has become almost a patriotic act. Following the invasion in February 2022, people in Poland were reported to be installing solar panels and heat pumps to free themselves from reliance on Russian-supplied energy.
Meanwhile, the high and volatile energy prices are shifting calculations about the payback period of renewable energies, adding economic weight to the political and environmental arguments for their installation. Institutional incentives are also emerging. Under its REPowerEU plan, the EU plans to increase of the share of renewable energy in its supply to 42.5–45 per cent of the total by 2030, up from the 40 per cent target agreed at the end of 2021. Germany raised its renewable energy target from 65 per cent to 80 per cent of the power mix by 2030. In the US, meanwhile, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) directs nearly $400 billion in federal funding for clean energy, to be delivered via a mix of tax incentives, grants and loan guarantees.
These incentives are already having an impact: within three months of the IRA being enacted, commitments to investing in US electric vehicle battery supply chains totalled $13.5 billion, compared with $7.5 billion in the previous three-month period. Analysis suggests that the IRA will result in over $91 billion being invested in the US battery industry over the next 10 years.
On the other hand, some of the actions being taken in response to the energy crisis risk locking in higher emissions far into the future.
The goal of decarbonizing energy systems, frequently mentioned in policy circles before the war, has been superseded by ‘energy security’ and ‘energy affordability’. The focus is now on ‘energy independence’, where the aim is to secure, like the US, sufficient domestic sources of energy to not rely on imports, regardless of how carbon-intensive those sources may be. This has caused the phasing-out of less clean forms of energy to stall. Indeed, any mention of phasing out fossil fuels was struck from the COP27 agreement at the very last moment.
Across the world, countries are building or reopening dirty power stations at home, while investing in coal, oil and gas development abroad. Within five days of the invasion, German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would use any power source, including nuclear energy, to ensure its energy security. This statement was all the more remarkable given that the government had vowed to close all of Germany’s nuclear stations in the aftermath of the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Indeed, while Germany has closed its last nuclear power plants, it has since taken the previously unthinkable decision to approve the use of more coal-fired power plants. At the end of July 2023, the UK government announced plans to permit hundreds of new oil and gas licences in the North Sea, in the name of ‘energy independence’48 – indicative of a steady drift away from the UK’s once firmly held climate commitments.
With supplies of Russian gas faltering, in mid-2022 Europe turned to imported LNG to refill its gas storage facilities in advance of winter. However, the nature of LNG – which is processed, shipped and cooled – means that, in normal circumstances, its climate footprint is far higher than that of piped natural gas. Increased reliance on LNG will therefore expand the carbon footprint of European gas supplies as a whole (including piped gas and LNG): by September 2022, total carbon emissions from gas had grown from just over 30 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) per barrel of oil equivalent (boe) to almost 40 kg of CO2 per boe.50
The war has also prompted an urgent search for new strategic partners to replace Russian energy, including in Africa and the Middle East. This is opening new fossil fuel energy supply chains across the world, at a time when the imperative of the globally agreed target of no more than 1.5°C of warming means that governments should be forbidding new fossil fuel developments and phasing down existing ones. Writing in the Financial Times in October 2022, climate activist Mohamed Adow warned:
Due to the current crises, we’re seeing a dash for gas in Africa, effectively turning Africa into Europe’s gas station and hooking us on the dirty stuff. And we have African leaders who will want to grab that opportunity, particularly given the rise in fossil fuel prices.
The dramatic push by European countries and others to compensate for lost Russian supplies of gas may end up creating a massive oversupply in gas infrastructure. New analysis released just before the COP27 UN climate conference in November 2022 pointed out that, if each of the new gas projects announced to deal with the supply crunch came to fruition, there would be a global oversupply of about 500 megatonnes of LNG by the end of the decade. This amount is equivalent to five times as much gas as the EU imported from Russia in 2021 and double Russia’s total gas exports that year.
In other words, while political leaders repeat the mantra of reducing dependence on imports of fossil fuels, their actions may have the opposite effect.
05 Cracks in the international food system
Blocked food shipments in the Black Sea cause hunger and food poverty on the other side of the world.
Volatile international prices for food have been another consequence of the war, with far-reaching geostrategic implications – so much so that the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report ranked a food supply crisis as one of the main threats facing the world.
Prior to the invasion, Ukraine was an important cog in the global food system, accounting for 10 per cent of global wheat exports, 13 per cent of barley exports, 15 per cent of corn exports, and more than 50 per cent of the global market for sunflower oil. Ninety-five per cent of Ukrainian grain exports were transported by sea from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, including Kherson, Mariupol and Odesa – all of which have been blockaded or occupied by Russian forces.
Ukraine’s grain production and exports dropped by 25 per cent and 15 per cent respectively in 2022, compared with 2021. Interruption to the flow of exports from the Black Sea, as well as the progressively tightened international sanctions on Russia (itself a major exporter of foodstuffs and fertilizer), led to dramatic rises in global food prices. Prices were rising before the war, but have jumped since February 2022 – eroding living standards and increasing poverty around the world.
Disruptions to Ukraine’s food exports mean increased poverty and deprivation in other parts of the world, especially in countries such as Bangladesh and Egypt, which in 2021 sourced around one-quarter of their wheat supplies from Ukraine. Around the world, an estimated additional 47 million people were acutely hungry in 2022 due to the ripple effects of the war.
Around the world, an estimated additional 47 million people were acutely hungry in 2022 due to the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine.
In 2022–23, world cereals production decreased by an estimated 0.9 per cent, compared with 2021–22. This may seem modest, but on average a 1 per cent drop in global harvests raises food commodity prices by 8.5 per cent. In the case of Ukraine, market panic, opportunistic speculation and a wave of reactive export restrictions pushed prices higher still. The average price of wheat, for example, leapt by 165 per cent between May 2021 and May 2022.
Another factor in global price rises is the price of fertilizers, which are key for agricultural yields, but also an important input cost for farmers. As with other commodities, the global price of fertilizers was high at the time of the invasion, due to tight markets and high energy costs arising from COVID-19-related restrictions being lifted. The war then rapidly accelerated the upward trend, both due to resultant higher energy prices and sanctions against Russia (Russia is also a key manufacturer of many fertilizers).
The sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus by the US, the EU, Canada and others exempted agricultural products, but nevertheless affected global fertilizer trade, since many importers choose not to purchase from the two sanctioned countries. Shortages were compounded by export restrictions in China, which accounts for 30 per cent of global phosphate fertilizer supplies. At the same time – illustrating the compound effects of the war – high energy prices led to a 70 per cent drop in European fertilizer production, further limiting supplies.
Fertilizer prices have eased compared with their early 2022 peaks but remain at historically high levels. Pre-war, prices were around $200–300 a tonne, peaking at over $800 a tonne. They are now closer to $600 a tonne. This price easing partly reflects weak demand as farmers cut fertilizer field applications due to affordability and availability issues. On average, a 1 per cent increase in fertilizer prices causes food commodity prices to rise by 0.45 per cent.
The Black Sea grain deal, negotiated by Turkey in July 2022, allowed for exports of Ukrainian and Russian food and fertilizers. By May 2023, over 30 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs had been exported under the initiative. Over 50 per cent of that cargo was maize, which was the grain most affected by blockages in Ukrainian granaries at the beginning of the war (accounting for 75 per cent of the 20 million tonnes of grain stored).
Russia increased its wheat exports in 2022, with volumes expected to have risen by 15 per cent due to the widespread theft of Ukrainian grain in occupied areas and the signing of the grain corridor agreement, which also helped to open some Ukrainian ports and stabilized the global food system. While the level of exports to some countries fell (notably to Iran and Turkey), those to others such as Egypt and countries in Latin America increased. Russian officials expect export volumes to grow further in 2023, as their figures will include the harvest from the occupied areas in Ukraine.
In May 2023, the Black Sea grain deal was extended for a further 60 days. But in mid-July 2023, Russia pulled out of the deal, complaining that its terms had not been met. This led to an immediate surge in wheat, corn and soybean prices. Around the same time, Russia started a concerted series of aerial attacks on grain export infrastructure in Black Sea port cities that senior UN officials condemned as potentially life-threatening to the millions of people around the world who need access to affordable food. The ongoing uncertainty over how much grain will be exported, and efforts by Russia to use food as a lever of political influence, mean that global food prices are likely to remain volatile in the medium term, particularly in the context of the El Niño weather system that is likely to constrain global food production in 2023–24.
Ongoing uncertainty over how much grain will be exported, and efforts by Russia to use food as a lever of political influence, mean that global food prices are likely to remain volatile in the medium term.
Volatility in global food commodity prices is also straining the ability of the global humanitarian system to help those in need. In 2021, the World Food Programme (WFP), which feeds millions of people worldwide every day, bought 40 per cent of its grain from Ukraine. One year after Russia’s invasion, WFP’s monthly operating costs were running at $73.6 million – 44 per cent higher than in 2019 – primarily as a result of the increased prices of providing fuel and food aid. Inflation in food costs, coupled with the breadth of the cost-of-living crisis, impacts globally on the economically marginalized. In the UK, for example, food price inflation reached more than 19 per cent in April 2023, contributing to significant rises in food poverty and use of food banks.
Continued uncertainty over both how much Ukrainian land can be planted and harvested in 2023 and who will control any crops that are harvested – coupled with high fertilizer prices and the collapse of the grain deal – means that these high and volatile global food prices are likely to persist. This will have serious consequences for poor countries that rely heavily on food imports. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) assessed the impact of higher food and fertilizer prices on the balance-of-payments situation of the 48 countries most affected (including Ukraine), calculating that the price rises are costing those countries $9 billion more than would have been the case without the war – eroding their foreign reserves and limiting their ability to pay for food imports. Quite apart from the impacts on nutrition and poverty, the negative effects on national finances could provoke protests and unrest in some countries, given the strong correlation between food price spikes and social instability.
06 Implications for climate action
The war is hindering climate action, while underlining why it is so critical to move away from fossil fuels.
Slowing the energy transition in Ukraine
Renewable energy installations have been heavily affected by the war, which has also cast doubt on the wisdom of civilian nuclear power
as a low-carbon energy source.
Ukraine – the world’s fifth most energy-intensive country – had been moving towards greater energy efficiency and decarbonization before the war. In 2016, Ukraine issued a nationally determined contribution (NDC) strategy that committed the country to reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030, a target that the government increased to 65 per cent in 2021. Just a few months before the invasion, at the November 2021 COP26 climate conference, Ukraine announced a planned end to coal-fired power generation by 2035.
The government had also set a goal of sourcing 25 per cent of Ukraine’s total energy supply from renewables by 2035 – an ambitious target requiring significant investment in wind and solar technology. According to a report by the Energy Charter Secretariat, Ukraine has the potential to produce more energy from renewable energy than anywhere else in southeast Europe. The EU was also hoping that Ukraine could become a major exporter of the ‘green’ hydrogen that is supposed to be the main element of Europe’s integrated power system by 2030 under the Green New Deal.
But the war has seriously damaged Ukraine’s renewable energy infrastructure and undermined future investments in the sector. According to the Ukrainian government, about 90 per cent of wind power capacity and 50 per cent of solar energy capacity have been taken offline as a result of the war, and more than 500 water infrastructure facilities, including hydroelectric dams, have been destroyed.
According to the Ukrainian government, about 90 per cent of wind power capacity and 50 per cent of solar energy capacity have been taken offline as a result of the war.
In June 2023, the Nova Khakhovka dam near Kherson was destroyed, causing huge areas of downstream lands to be inundated with water, and – at the time of writing – raising concerns about the viability of the cooling systems at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack an ‘environmental bomb of mass destruction’, and the Ukrainian government accused Russia of ‘ecocide’.
Replacing Ukraine’s renewable energy infrastructure is complicated, particularly while fighting is ongoing. Unsurprisingly, future investment in renewables is uncertain. For example, the largest operator of renewable generation in Ukraine, DTEK Renewables, has indefinitely delayed plans to construct 700 MW of additional wind power capacity for its network.
Even so, some projects have continued: the 19-turbine Tyligulska wind power plant opened in 2023, despite being situated less than 100 kilometres from the frontline in the region of Mykolaiv. And the level of climate ambition in Ukraine policy circles has, somewhat remarkably, persisted. In June 2023, the Ukrainian government adopted new legislation to encourage investment in renewable energies and the modernization of the country’s energy system. And in July 2023, the government reaffirmed its commitment to phase out state-owned coal power plants by 2035.
Nevertheless, the viability of nuclear power as a low-carbon source of energy – both in Ukraine and elsewhere – has been thrown into doubt, as the war has demonstrated how vulnerable civilian nuclear power stations can be to attack. Despite its tragic history with Chornobyl, Ukraine still depended heavily on nuclear power before the war, with 15 reactors across four stations providing about one-half of the country’s electricity. All 15 are pressurized-water reactors of Soviet-era design, with their average age already past the original design threshold of 30 years. The oldest of these reactors has been in operation since 1980. However, in 2012, Energoatom – a state enterprise operating all four of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants – announced it intended to operate the oldest reactors at those plants for at least 20 more years.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe – has been repeatedly attacked and has been under Russian control since March 2022. The loss of independent cooling systems could potentially lead to the meltdown of used fuel in reactors or cooling ponds. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is ‘gravely concerned about the situation’ at Zaporizhzhia. The plant’s reactors have been disconnected from the Ukrainian electricity grid, leading to a significant loss of supply. President Zelenskyy’s appeals to create demilitarized zones around nuclear power stations remain unanswered. Since Russia’s occupation of the plant, there have been repeated power blackouts, forcing the plant to temporarily rely on emergency diesel generators for reactor-cooling, and for other nuclear safety and security functions. IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi has said, ‘I don’t know for how long we are going to be lucky in avoiding a nuclear accident.’ The agency further noted in its February 2023 assessment that, ‘[e]very single one of the IAEA’s crucial seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security in an armed conflict has been compromised’. These attacks have also underlined the strategic risks of nuclear power plants – in particular, their exposure to being targeted as a form of immense ‘dirty bomb’ by deeply irresponsible actors.
Threatening multilateral co-operation on climate change
Climate action risks being drawn into a stand-off between Russia
and the West.
Some experts argue that the world is entering a period of ‘deglobalization’ that could hinder collective action on global challenges. The final question is what this means for the prospects of ambitious action on climate change.
Climate change is widely viewed as the one of the biggest single challenges facing the planet. But the issue of climate change risks being pulled into a geopolitical stand-off between Russia (and potentially China) and the West. Growing concerns about the current consequences of the war, the risks of escalation and the spectre of all-out nuclear conflict have pushed the climate crisis down the media and political agendas, with UN secretary-general António Guterres warning in October 2022 that the war was putting climate action on the ‘backburner’. Meanwhile, the focus on energy security at a national level could reduce the space for countries to advance bold climate action at the yearly UN climate conferences.
Even climate negotiations are getting tangled in these wider political currents. During a video address at COP27, Zelenskyy argued that global collective action on climate change will not be possible until the war ends. In the run-up to that conference, Russia endeavoured to include emissions from the occupied Crimean peninsula in its national-level greenhouse gas inventory, a claim that was vigorously disputed by Ukraine as being part of an effort by Russia to normalize the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support Russian claims over the territory. Russia’s climate envoy, Ruslan Edelgeriev, argued at the conference that Russia remained committed to its climate targets despite sanctions. He also linked climate action to the wider political situation, adding that Russia could achieve carbon neutrality earlier than its current target of 2060 if sanctions were lifted. This statement appears to underline the apparent approach by Russia of using climate action as a point of leverage over the West, and points to the risk that the continuing war may impede negotiations over climate change and other global challenges.
07 Conclusion and recommendations
If the right actions are taken now and post-war, Ukraine can rebuild its damaged infrastructure and leap forward to a cleaner, low-emission future.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is, first and foremost, a tragedy for Ukrainians. Alongside the humanitarian horror and the geopolitical shockwaves the war is causing, it is also exacerbating vulnerability to climate change in Ukraine and around the world, and hindering multilateral climate action.
The course of the war will have significant strategic implications for the prospects of the green transition both in Ukraine and internationally. But much of the long-term effect depends on actions taken from now on. If the right actions are taken, Ukraine can rebuild its damaged infrastructure and leap forward to a cleaner, low-emission future.
The following recommendations are aimed at policymakers in Ukraine and elsewhere. They have been divided into two broad groups: the first consists of short-term actions – i.e. those that are possible and necessary while the war is ongoing; and the second ‘long-term’ actions – i.e. those that can only be put into place once the conflict ends.
Actions over the short term
Plan ahead for green reconstruction
Even though Ukraine is fighting for its existence right now, there are things that its government and partners can do to ensure that plans for green reconstruction can be implemented when the time arises. This could be an opportunity to reshape Ukraine’s economic foundations, shifting the country towards low-carbon development, energy efficiency and environmental protection.
In April 2022, the Ukrainian government formed the National Council for Recovery from the War. The council established a working group on ‘environmental safety’ to develop proposals for the plan. The working group identified five priority areas:
- Reforming public environmental administration;
- Climate change mitigation and adaptation policy;
- Environmental safety and effective waste management;
- Sustainable use of natural resources; and
- Conservation of natural ecosystems, preservation of biological diversity, and restoration and development of protected areas.
The government released its 10-year recovery plan in July 2022 at a heads-of-state conference in Lugano, Switzerland. A recent study estimated that 33 per cent of Ukraine’s recovery plan is climate positive, and that, with the right support, Ukraine could emerge from the war as a climate leader. Ukraine’s partners, meanwhile, can help to coordinate best practice guidance and lessons learned from other examples of post-war reconstruction, and monitor financial flows coming in for reconstruction to ensure they are also contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Secure funding for reconstruction
Post-war reconstruction in Ukraine will be a huge task, requiring a comprehensive, well-coordinated and well-funded effort. European and other partners must begin working now to bring together the right partners, identify the best expertise and find funding. Close coordination with supporting countries, international organizations and international financial institutions is needed to mobilize the expertise and resources required for the reconstruction.
Ukraine’s reconstruction is also a unique opportunity for Europe as a whole to become more energy-efficient. Ukraine and its partners can develop a pipeline of achievable green investment projects to mobilize domestic and international private finance, as well as international public funding. Continued modernization of government institutions at the national and subnational levels will ensure that there is the necessary capacity to plan and implement climate-friendly and environmentally sustainable reconstruction efforts.
Develop a sustainable and cost-efficient energy strategy
Ukraine will need to implement an energy strategy that accounts for the new realities. The role of nuclear power in Ukraine’s future energy mix is still to be determined but needs to be carefully considered. Renewable energy can provide a rapid pathway to greater political independence and a more competitive economy for Ukraine. It also enables greater integration with the EU. Therefore, the rebuilding of transmission grids and electricity networks needs to be suited to renewables, to maximize system flexibility. Linking the Ukrainian grid with that of the EU would provide an outlet for exports and power exchanges, and would reduce the ability of Russia and its allies to use energy as a tool of influence over Ukraine.
Avoid delays to climate action
The energy and food price crises and the movement of millions of refugees should not be used as excuses to delay ambitious climate action. Governments around the world must work with urgency to build resilience to these cascading risks and ensure attention to both the immediate existential challenge for Ukraine and the longer-term challenge of climate change. It is precisely these types of crises that demonstrate the need to promote renewable energies, foster energy efficiency and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Actions for the long term
Build back better
Once the war ends, the reconstruction of Ukraine can begin in earnest. The post-war economic reconstruction process can, and should, be used for a fundamental transformation of Ukraine towards a green and net zero economy. The war presents an opportunity to rebuild in a more energy-efficient way, with fewer polluting industries and transport systems. Buildings designed in the Soviet era were poorly insulated, and this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to construct a high-efficiency building stock. Greater energy efficiency alone could reduce Ukraine’s energy demand by an estimated 40 per cent.
The government and its partners should advocate for sufficient funding and demand high standards for green reconstruction. Close coordination with supporting countries, international organizations and international financial institutions is needed to mobilize the expertise, resources and supply chains for the reconstruction. It should also be done by Ukrainian companies: a recent study by USAID found that 90 per cent of materials needed can be provided by domestic companies and that 100,000 jobs could be created. The international community must begin working now to bring together the right partners, identify the best expertise and find funding.
Accelerate energy efficiency measures and move away from fossil fuels
The war underlines the political, economic, environmental and security imperatives for Ukraine and other countries to move away from fossil fuels. This can be achieved by promoting energy efficiency, enabling renewable forms of energy production and storage, reducing use of fossil fuels in the energy and agricultural sectors, and shifting sourcing away from autocratic states. Given the ease with which fossil fuels can be used as instruments of political coercion, diversifying away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy self-sufficiency can also have positive political and security benefits.
Establish plans to transition food systems for resilience and sustainability
As 2022 has shown, along with previous crises such as the financial crises of 2007–08 and 2010–11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, globalized food systems are prone to price volatility that can be exacerbated by export bans, financial speculation and lack of transparency. They are also globally significant drivers of climate change, being responsible for approximately one-third of global anthropogenic emissions. The transformation of food systems to both build resilience and adapt to climate change, and to mitigate its environmental impacts, is a clear need. Building food security – as part of national security – should not be an excuse to avoid transforming food systems for positive environmental and health outcomes, as these goals can be aligned; just as energy security is not a reason to revert to fossil fuel-based energy systems.
Invest in collaboration for climate adaptation
Meanwhile, Russia’s war against Ukraine underlines the need for countries worldwide to collaborate more closely to address the impacts of climate change, to find ways to encourage and enable joint efforts on adaptation to climate change across the world, and to address the cascading risks from climate change that could exacerbate other crises. Ultimately, once this needless war is over, it will be important to build for the future, not to rebuild the past.
Source: Chatham House