Since May 17e, nearly 4,000 civilians have been killed and 4,000 injured in Russia’s war against Ukraine, with the Kyiv School of Economics estimating total economic losses at $600 billion. The environment is a silent victim of war: the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that at least 530,000 hectares of land have been affected, damaged or destroyed by the conflict so far. This damage, ranging from the burning of forests to the chemical pollution of waters and the release of radioactive substances from nuclear power plants, poses a serious threat to those who are already struggling to survive. Carroll Muffett of the Center for International Environmental Law writes, “When we talk about the environmental consequences of war, what we are really talking about is simply the impact of war on humans…in a more prolonged and often more insidious.
Ukraine was already “on the brink of ecological disaster” before the Russian invasion escalated the rate and cost of environmental damage, according to Ukrainian environmental organization Ecodia. The country has long been in environmental distress, in part due to climate change and hundreds of years of coal production, and intensified after Russia captured Crimea in 2014, which UNEP says has seriously damaged forests by destroying trees and polluting water and soil. Without forests, Ukraine is even more vulnerable to flooding and erosion, which allows the spread of toxic waste and makes the land uninhabitable. Moreover, war itself is a massive emitter of greenhouse gases. The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs found that military machinery and environmental destruction in the US War on Terror released more than 1.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.
Rule 45 of the Geneva Convention officially prohibits the use of “methods of means of warfare which are intended to cause or are likely to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment”. Yevhenia Zasyadko, head of Ecodia’s environmental war crimes task force, reported a number of environmental crimes committed since the start of the invasion: shelling and shelling of industrial facilities, damage to nuclear power plants (increasing the risk of toxic waste emissions), damage to energy and water pumping systems (resulting in the accumulation of carcinogenic waste), the spread of forest fires and significant chemical pollution of soil and water . The Ukrainian government estimated environmental damage at 77 million as of March 9ebut it will be impossible to assess the total loss until the conflict subsides.
Given that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already blatantly committed brutal massacres in Bucha and indiscriminately bombed Mariupol and Kharkiv, highlighting further violations of international law is unlikely to deter him from committing more war crimes. environmental.
As many countries have pledged to sanction Russia, including limiting the country’s trade in coal, oil and gas, Ecodia’s Kostiantyn Krynytskyi reports EU ‘green transition’ not making enough progress quick. “Not enough has been done yet, because these strategic intentions do not affect Russia’s revenues from fossil fuel exports in the short term,” Kryntytskyi says. Between February and April, Russia earned $66 billion in revenue from fossil fuel shipments, 71% of which was purchased by the European Union.
The European Commission announced a plan at the end of May to accelerate the transition from Russian fossil fuels to renewable energy, although this transition involves a continued dependence on the import of coal from other sources such as Egypt, Israel and the Nigeria. Sierra Club’s Senior Manager, Kelly Sheehan, points out: “It is clear that the new gas export facilities would not meet near-term energy needs and would only serve to lock in decades of dependence on dirty fossil fuels at a time when our climate and communities can least afford it.
The European Union and the United States must reconcile two objectives: 1) to cut Russian fossil fuel exports as a means of punishment for war crimes committed in Ukraine; and 2) make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The Ukrainian crisis can be a catalyst for geopolitical environmental change, as well as unified action against a powerful and aggressive Russian state.
The environment has long been the victim of violent conflict. Between 1950 and 2000, writes the New York Times, “more than 80% of the world’s major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hotspots”. In Mozambique, during a 15-year war at the end of the 20e century, populations of elephants, zebras and buffaloes have declined by more than 90% in Gorongosa National Park. Food insecurity caused by war, economic stress and destroyed land can lead to increased poaching, especially when previously protected areas have lost their guards. The Wildlife Conservation Society has found that soaring poverty rates can lead to declines even in abundant populations like moose, wild boar and bears.
Currently, UNEP reports that Ukraine is experiencing an increase in poaching and illegal logging, which threatens not only endangered species but also abundant ones. The destruction of arable land, essential both to the life of Ukrainians and to the national grain export economy, will disrupt the entire ecosystem, threatening animals and humanity. Tackling food insecurity in Ukraine should be a top priority for humanitarian organizations in order to save both the environment and Ukrainian lives.
In some cases, such as during World War II or in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, periods of absence from certain lands allowed plant and animal populations to rebound. However, the New York Times warns, the rapid movement to rebuild infrastructure and economies once these conflicts are over may accelerate environmental destruction beyond pre-war levels. Zasyadko calls for the reconstruction to be done in a “green and sustainable” way. Once the conflict is over and Ukraine begins to recover, she writes, Ukrainians should prioritize “the recovery and protection of ecosystems [that focus] on nature-based solutions and adaptation to climate change. Zasyadko emphasizes the importance of environmental documentation and monitoring to assess the environmental damage of war and to force the “aggressor” – Russia – to pay for it.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will only accelerate the damage that climate change inflicts on living things. Putin must be held accountable for its destruction, from the lives of those murdered in Bucha to those infected by chemically polluted waters. The United Nations, NATO, the European Union, other international organizations and NGOs, as well as individual states, must support environmental activists like Ecodia in Ukraine and join their fight to protect and rebuild Ukraine and its environment.
Crimes against the environment are crimes against humanity. Only a unified and reliable response from international and national organizations can ensure an end to the human and environmental losses in Ukraine.