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In February 2022, Ukraine faced its biggest existential challenge since gaining national independence in 1991. After a night of explosions and missile attacks marking Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, service-aged men and women were drafted, trained, and brought to the front lines to stop the invaders in their tracks. Over a year has passed, and while Ukraine has mainly succeeded in defending its sovereignty, other concerns require international attention. Perhaps the largest of these is the impact of the war on global climate change.

Over the past year, climate activists have reminded the international community that Russia’s invasion distracts decision-makers from the near threat of global climate change. 2022 saw two major international environmental conferences: the COP27 conference on climate change and the COP15 conference on biodiversity, where political representatives and experts came together to address critical environmental issues. While the war was not on the official agenda of either of last year’s COP conferences, it was reportedly a popular topic at sideline events. With the world starting to prepare for COP28 later this year and with no near end to Russia’s war, we must take a sober look at its environmental costs. From Ukraine to Russia, and beyond, the war challenges global efforts to combat climate change.

From Russia with Oil

The war has highlighted our global energy system’s interdependency, our complex network of energy-consuming and energy-producing states. While these categories are not always mutually exclusive, Russia is unquestionably dominant in the latter category. When Russia first invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the world felt the weight of the war. While a united front of sanctions wrestled with the Russian economy, politicians and individuals worldwide tried to untangle their ties to Russia and its energy sector. Europeans dramatically reduced their Russian energy imports, with the average person consuming nearly 20% less gas in late 2022 and early 2023. A dramatic rise in fuel prices at the beginning of the conflict likely contributed to this change; however, those prices have since dropped below pre-invasion levels.

A collective change in attitude can explain this shifted trajectory. Before the war, importing Russian gas was considered a necessary evil. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, other countries have adapted to an energy market where importing Russia’s oil is not a viable political option. In October 2022, the UN Weather Agency chief went so far as to describe the invasion of Ukraine as a “blessing” from a climate perspective — for sparking a dramatic downturn in the consumption of Russian energy. As he sees it, the shock to the global energy interdependence may cause countries to speed up the green transition and develop “energy-saving solutions.”

Russians felt a significant shock at the start of the war. Global sanctions and the de-facto embargo on Russian gas caused a drop in GDP, including a 1.6% drop in natural gas emissions globally. However, a significant increase in coal emissions offset the decrease in natural gas. On top of this shock to the energy economy, the invasion has brought a new awareness of the connections between war, climate change, food security, energy security, and the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity. Writing for Carnegie Politika, climate journalist Angelina Daydova has analyzed these linkages and predicted a dismal outcome for Russians. She forecasts “a repetition of the 1990s … when Russian emissions fell by over 30 percent” due to the economic downturn accompanying the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Holding the Front in a Warming World

Ukrainians are acutely aware of the environmental impacts caused by the Russian invasion. Shortly after the start of the conflict, a group of environmental activists, researchers, and journalists formed the Ukrainian War Environmental Consequences Work Group (UWEC Work Group). Since early 2022, they have published dozens of articles and reports on the war’s environmental consequences, covering topics ranging from the challenges of green recovery to the direct impact of the conflict on Ukraine’s ecosystems.

A recent article by Valeriia Kolodezhna addresses the war’s effects on Ukraine’s soil, showing a variety of consequences like heavy metal pollution and increased desertification. Kolodezhna points to a soil metamorphosis brought on by the war, with the largest impacts on Ukraine’s Eastern and Southern regions. These areas were home to the country’s most fertile soils and have been host to some of the most violent fighting since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Desertification only escalated with Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, with regions in Ukraine’s east and south suffering greatly. Their losses have been both environmental and economic, given the increased challenges to exporting wheat — Ukraine’s primary agricultural export — in wartime.

Despite the conflict, Ukraine could lead a green transition in Europe. A recent report by Coda Story pointed to the country’s vast reserves of rare earth minerals necessary for building batteries and other green technologies. Currently, China exports the majority of these minerals, but the EU has expressed interest in transitioning away from these Chinese imports. In her report for Coda, however, journalist Amanda Coakley explained that Ukraine is at least ten years away from reaping financial benefits from mining these minerals. At the same time, Russia has pledged to become the second-largest global producer of rare earth minerals after China. 

Reports have even emerged that Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group exploits Ukraine’s mining facilities to cover their operational costs. While the financial rewards are years away, the drive towards rare-earth mineral extraction and fertile agricultural lands seem to be overt but underreported aspects of Russia’s motivations in launching their invasion.

An Elephant in the Room

Having now lasted for over a year and with no end in sight, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought tension to the global arena. From an environmental perspective, many have called for Russia to be charged with ecocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the term ecocide has existed for several decades, describing any unlawful act that knowingly leads to environmental damage, the ICC has yet to adopt it as a major criminal offence. While only a select few countries have adopted ecocide laws, this small list surprisingly includes Russia and Ukraine. While there are still significant challenges to holding a country or army accountable for ecocide, the term’s re-emergence amid this conflict speaks to the sense of environmental hostility that Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine. As long as Russia’s invasion drags on, its participation in global climate action will remain a point of contention. 

This awkward position has not entirely stopped Russia from seeking new partnerships in its green transition. In a January op-ed, Davydova points out the paradox of Russia promoting a “sovereign green agenda” while insisting on removing global sanctions to increase global collaboration. Last year, Russia also announced more comprehensive details on its goal of reaching “carbon neutrality by 2060.” Experts expect Russia will be able to accomplish this, given its vast forests and their role as carbon sinks. However, Russian diplomats have tried to argue — without much success — that the sanctions placed on Russia since 2022 have hindered the country from achieving its climate goals. 

Russian representatives have courted countries from the Global South, proposing technological solutions to environmental issues. Meanwhile, Russia has spent much of the last year de-greening its policies and melting permafrost has become one of the many dangers in remote regions of Russia’s Arctic, causing a major oil spill in 2020.

While Russia’s awkward position in the global arena has led to a more tense atmosphere at conferences and summits, it may bring some secondary benefits. As the UN’s Weather Chief indicated, there has been a shift in Western European countries to accelerating a green transition over the past year. For example, Germany reduced their use of gas through experimental public transit regimes, which won public favor for the newly elected government. As the war in Ukraine drags on, the impacts of global climate change become more present in our lives. Policymakers would have to do well to invest in creative solutions driving a green transition.

A New Era of Policy

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the urgency of addressing climate change. It has also stoked interest in the emergent field of climate security, where researchers analyze national and global security through the lens of climate change. In the Arctic, for example, melting sea ice and the emergence of new resource extraction sites and shipping routes will bring about new security risks and worsen old ones. In the last year, Russia has weaponized the global energy supply and the climate, raising tensions in places where climate change threatens regional security. There is a clear reason security experts have kept their eyes on the Arctic, as the warming world will transform this region into one marked by major global shipping and resource extraction. Navigating this new space will require a tactful and calculated approach as new Arctic players continue emerging in an era marked by tense global diplomacy. 

Last year, policymakers scrambled to adapt to a new global “normal,” but the years ahead will require calculated and practical approaches to green policymaking worldwide. Implementing green legislation will require diplomacy and a collaborative approach to meeting climate targets. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that leaders can rise to the occasion when met with a strong threat to the global economy and rules-based international order. In the future, however, climate change will pose such a threat. It is up to those in power to prepare for a new era of dynamic and pragmatic policymaking.

Edited by Zander Chila

Jack McClelland

Jack McClelland (he/him) is a writer and translator based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). He earned his B.A. in International Relations, English literature, and Russian at the University of British Columbia,...