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Russia’s Assault on Ukraine Is Becoming a Climate Catastrophe, Internally and Globally

By: Finn Does

In late February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists facilitated by the United Nations, released a report detailing that the consequences of global warming are increasing with such speed, that if governments don’t start adapting and finding solutions right now it could soon be quite literally too late, meaning that human impacts on climate would be irreversible.

But climate doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the top of countries' agendas right now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in late February appears to obscure the ecological crisis. The trouble is, climate change is not going anywhere while the world hones its focus on Ukraine, and will certainly not slow down for us.

Moreover, the two crises “go hand in hand,” and it's becoming increasingly more clear that we need to look at Putin’s siege of Ukraine “under the climate lens,” as Olivia Lazard of Carnegie Europe wrote in a recent article.

Putin is financing this war with Russian profits from fossil fuels. If it weren’t for Europe and the United States' reliance on fossils Russia “would not have money to make this aggression,” says Svitlana Krakovska, a Ukrainian meteorologist who finished her work on the recent IPCC report just after taking shelter during the siege. Her point represents the epitome of the Ukraine-Russia conflict and its root connection to our reliance on hydrocarbons.

In addition to the civilian impact, the conflict has exacerbated a pre-existing energy crisis in Europe and the U.S., trapped vital metals for renewable energy sources inside its borders, and most worrisome of all, led to delayed climate action from our governments.

Ripple Effects: The Global Impact

The impact of the Ukraine invasion has led to a ripple effect of climate related issues across the globe. Energy crises, agricultural shortages, and a curtailment of global climate cooperation from the scientific community are just a few of the Russia-Ukraine induced issues.

The Energy Crisis

Since the onset of the war, gas and oil prices in the U.S. and Europe have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, a result of the United States’ ban and Europe’s sanctions on Russian exports, highlighting our alarming reliance on fossil fuels.

Russia is the world’s fourth-largest supplier of greenhouse gasses and the third-largest source of coal. Fossil fuels made up around 28% of its economy in 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal.

With the United States’ ban on Russian oil imports, gas prices within the U.S. have increased enormously. In California, the average price of gasoline is $5.78 a gallon, the highest in the country.

However, unlike the U.S, the EU has not banned imports on Russian oil and gas,

demonstrating that they don’t have the infrastructure, reserves, or other forms of energy, like solar and wind to sustain their societies and economies.

One-third of Europe’s oil and 40% of its gas is supplied by Russia. That number is even larger for Germany with Russia accounting for 60% of its gas and half of its coal imports, according to Bloomberg. With sanctions on Russia, reduced trade, and the moral issues of supporting Russia in a time like this, Europe is finally rethinking its reliance on fossil fuels, realizing that hydrocarbons are no longer environmentally or economically sustainable.

According to Kristine Berzina, the head of the geopolitics team for a prominent? think tank in Washington, “the European Union is about to push hard to get Europe off of Russian fossil fuels,” with the notion that buying oil and gas from Russia, is “funding the war machine.”

The good news is that these sharp energy prices pressure Europe and the U.S. to innovate and find substitutes for hydrocarbons.

The Agricultural Crisis

It’s not just gas markets that have been affected, the global agri-business and grain supply have taken a hard blow. A report from the WFP estimates that 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize are currently locked in Russia and Ukraine. The invasion has stopped the flow of fertilizer, wheat and other crops out of Ukraine, driving up prices of bread and other products like sunflower oil.

Countries that rely on Ukraine’s wheat and agricultural products have been greatly impacted by the invasion. Turkey, Thailand, and parts of Africa are among the hardest hit, with prices of vegetable oils and fertilizers soaring.

Forecasts by the Food and Agriculture Organization, shown in a Scientific American article, indicate some regions of Africa could see a 30% decline in food supplies due to limited access to fertilizers.

It’s not just Ukraine that supplies the world with agri-business but Russia. Together, the two countries produce about 12% of the food calories consumed globally. A combination of sanctions on Russia, resources locked in Ukraine, and irregular weather patterns (a result of climate change), are expected to lead to major food shortages in the near future.

What many don’t necessarily realize is that Putin is trying to “hoard agricultural lands for Russia’s food security, thereby also increasing the world’s future dependence on Russia in agricultural markets,” says Carnegie Europe.

The Climate Collaboration Crisis

The war in Ukraine has made its way all the way to the Arctic, where crucial climate monitoring activities were put on hold a few weeks ago. Scientists from across the globe were collaborating to perform important research on carbon emissions and the immediate effects of climate change in the Russian-controlled Arctic. Now, that has all stopped.

Climate scientists worry that growing animosity between Arctic nations could lead to Russia committing environmentally-harming activities—and without the Arctic Council in place to enforce regulations. The Arctic has seen and continues to see Russian actions such as mining and gas flaring which releases methane, a gas 80 times more potent at warming than CO2.

Already, scientists previously in collaboration with Russia have reported decreases in shared research with their fellow Russian scientists. It’s hard to forecast how much longer the Ukraine conflict will persist, but what's clear is Russia’s militant and political aggression has unraveled and quite possibly broken ties in scientific communities.

Internal Effects: The State of the Environment Inside Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not only having repercussions globally but has also created a major climate problem within the country, causing air pollution, water contamination, energy crises, food shortages, and habitat destruction. In short, the conflict has ravaged the environment and ecology of the country. Here is a rundown of the main issues.

Air and Water Contamination:

  • As a country with widespread industry, some dealing with hazardous materials and minerals, Ukraine poses great environmental risk to air and water quality if those facilities are destroyed.

  • “War in industrial areas creates extensive risks of toxic contamination, given the concentration of power-generating stations, chemical plants, metalworking factories, and the like,” says Ken Conca, a professor of international relations at American University.

  • Already, Ukraine has seen significant damage to facilities containing toxic materials, leaving waste runoff to leak into rivers and enter the atmosphere. Additionally, war-induced explosions and fires release toxic fumes and pollutants, contaminating air quality.

Nuclear Facilities and Radiation Risks:

  • Ukraine operates fifteen nuclear reactors—and if targeted by Russia would likely generate radiation risks and lasting contamination and health problems.

  • Several reports noted there have been Russian strikes in the vicinity of nuclear waste facilities, although this has the possibility of being misinformation. Nuclear contamination is a huge risk knowing that these facilities are possibly in a warzone.

  • Early on in the conflict, Russia captured the Chernobyl site (a nuclear-power plant that exploded in 1986). Currently, monitoring the contaminated radius (a safety requirement) is disrupted creating potential risk for radiation leaks.

The reverberations of Russia’s invasion have been felt as much on a global scale as they have internally in Ukraine. The two countries both being centers for agricultural, mineral, and fossil fuel trade adds another level of complication for global markets, energy, and food security.

As the true impact of the conflict is felt further and further from Ukraine, we can start to see a pattern of behavior on Russia's part, described in a Carnegie Europe article: “to try to become a power broker and to carve out spheres of influence in the world, be it in Ukraine, the Central African Republic, in Mali.” Russia, Putin, is scared of the path ahead—where the fossil fuel empires crumble—and clean energy systems take hold. Russia’s invasion of countries influences how the rest of the world will be able to effectively transition to renewables while simultaneously upholding democratic and socioeconomic flexibility in the face of climate change.

Either way, if humans want to ensure a stable future with a livable planet, we must listen to the scientists compiling the IPCC report. The Ukraine crisis is here, but so is climate change, and both crises demand our attention and resilience.

War is “closing the window of opportunity” to adapt to climate change, says Ukrainian scientist Svitlana Krakovska. “The money that's invested in fossil fuels, they're using against us. Against freedom. Against humanity.”


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