Ukraine has used the Cop27 climate talks to make the case that Russia’s invasion is causing an environmental as well as humanitarian catastrophe, with fossil fuels a key catalyst of the country’s destruction.
Ukraine has dispatched two dozen officials to the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to spell out the links between the war launched by Russia in February, the soaring cost of energy due to Russia’s status as a key gas supplier, and the planet-heating emissions expelled by the offensive.
Heavy shelling and the movement of troops and tanks has polluted the air, water and land, said Svitlana Grynchuk, Ukraine’s assistant environment minister, as well as killing thousands of people and decimating the country’s economy. A fifth of Ukraine’s protected areas have been ruined by the war, she added, with the contamination of previously fertile soils alone costing €11.4bn (£10bn) in damages.
“This is not simply a war, this is state terrorism and it is ecocide,” Grynchuk said. “The invasion has killed wildlife, generated pollution and caused social instability. The terrorist state continues to send missiles to our power plants. Our environment is under threat because of this terrorist attack.”
War causes emissions, as does its aftermath. Ukraine estimates that rebuilding its shattered towns, cities and industry will cause nearly 50m tonnes of carbon dioxide to be emitted. “Military emissions in peacetime and times of war are relevant, they are material,” said Axel Michaelowa, a climate economist who has studied wartime pollution. “The emissions are comparable to that of entire countries.”
The Ukrainian government’s priority remains rallying international support to help expel Russia from its territory. In a video address to Cop27 delegates and world leaders on Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that “there can be no effective climate policy without the peace”.
But Ukraine is also touting its enthusiasm to transition swiftly to renewable energy, which it said would cast off the yoke of Russian fossil fuel dominance through which Vladimir Putin has used gas as a pressure point against European allies of Ukraine. This stance has been backed at Cop27 by John Kerry, the US climate envoy, who said American and European leaders were “absolutely certain this accelerates the transition” to clean energy.
A sombre pavilion set up by Ukraine at Sharm el-Sheikh looks more like a slate-grey war memorial than the colourful displays put on by other countries for the 30,000 delegates at the conference.
Samples of different soils that were thrown into the air as Russian bombs thudded into the ground are framed on a wall. A lump of oak, riddled with bullets, is on display, taken from the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, where the Russian offensive resulted in the breaching of a dam that caused the flooding of homes, forests and meadows, according to the exhibit.
Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, said there was now a growing understanding that fossil fuels have not only helped fund Putin’s war machine but that reliance on oil and gas has left countries at the mercy of soaring energy and food costs.
“I’m happy, at least, that the connection is now clear for many people,” said Krakovska, who was working on a key United Nations climate report when war broke out and now has to endure electricity blackouts for about 12 hours a day in Kyiv due to a relentless barrage of Russian missile and drone attacks that have targeted civilian infrastructure including power and water supplies.
In October, a missile landed near her home and shattered the windows of nearby buildings. Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, has called the Russian bombardment “genocide” and warned the city may have to be evacuated if the power failures persist.
“My children have to go to school in a basement, it’s not fun to spend time there. There’s no heating or light, sometimes we have no water which is much worse,” Krakovska said.
“It’s difficult to be in Kyiv under this situation. It’s a lot of pressure and stress. My husband had a bad situation two weeks ago when he was in hospital from migraines due to the accumulated stress. I was afraid for his life.”
Krakovska said it was difficult to leave Kyiv to go to Egypt – she is there with her daughter, who is now afraid of any plane that travels overhead – but she was determined to stress the message that Ukraine is the victim of a fossil fuel war.
“It’s difficult to talk about a green transition now when people don’t have anything to heat themselves and winter is coming,” she said. “We will just try to do our best to survive. But we all need to all realise our dependency on fossil fuels, we need to think about energy independence, not just from Russia but from fossil fuels. The most reliable energy source is the sun and we need to use it.”
Krakovska said the forests she had studied for climate impacts have been torn apart by bombs, while farmland is now laced with landmines. This damage is similar, she argues, to the destruction inflicted upon developing countries by hurricanes, floods and other climate impacts caused by global heating.
“Of course the type of destruction is different but fossil fuels caused climate change and it caused this war,” she said. “Russia destroyed our lives and destroyed our environment. First, of course we need to stop this war, because we are under attack.
“But then, I’m very much sure we will find a way for fossil fuels to be in our past. Fossil fuels will then be real fossils. Left in the ground, where they belong.”