How Russia’s war on Ukraine is threatening climate security

Smoke from wildfires in Kyiv covering the city on 5 September 2022 in Ukraine. Photo: Yurii Stefanyak/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images.
Smoke from wildfires in Kyiv covering the city on 5 September 2022 in Ukraine. Photo: Yurii Stefanyak/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images.

The geopolitical consequences of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine are coming into focus as the invasion enters its second year.

The war is an existential threat for Ukraine, but its impacts go well beyond the immediate devastation that it’s causing, particularly with regard to the climate.

The war threatens to increase vulnerability to climate change around the world and therefore exacerbate climate-security risks.

It also risks hindering global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions as investigated in an independent paper coordinated by Chatham House for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Over the course of the past year, Russia has weaponized energy supplies – and the climate itself – as never before. It has cut or halted gas deliveries to many countries across Europe, aiming to sap their military, financial and political support for Ukraine. Indeed, in October 2022, Russia began systematically destroying power generation and heating infrastructure across Ukraine with the aim of freezing the population into submission.

The war has also raised the risk of violent conflict around the world by compounding sources of insecurity that are already under pressure because of climate change including food insecurity, large-scale human displacement and the sort of inflationary price spikes that can foment social unrest.

The invasion has triggered unprecedented jumps in global energy and food prices too which has created a cost-of-living crisis that is impoverishing millions around the world. It has also led to the highest number of refugees in Europe since the Second World War while, around the globe, an additional 47 million people are acutely hungry because of war-related disruptions to food exports from Ukraine and Russia.

Meanwhile, the war is raising tensions in places where climate change is threatening regional security. The Arctic is one example. Warming temperatures are already reshaping the region where countries vie for control over valuable resources and strategic shipping lanes in the once ice-bound seas. Since 1996, the Arctic Council has worked to encourage cooperation across the eight nations bordering the Arctic. Now, seven of its eight members are either NATO members or – as in the case of Sweden and Finland – applying to join NATO as a direct result of the war.

The remaining member of the Arctic Council, with more than half of the Arctic Ocean coastline, is Russia. Over the past decade, Russia has built or re-activated 50 military installations and bases in the Arctic.

It makes no secret of its plan to extend its power in the region. With trust between Russia and other Arctic states at a historically low ebb, and the work of the council largely halted, there is a growing risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations in the once-frozen North.

Furthermore, the war is adding to the challenge of climate change itself. During the first seven months of the war, the fighting released some 100 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, as well as the sabotage to the two Nord Stream pipelines in September 2022, which led to the biggest ever point source release of methane – a potent warming gas.

But the effects on the climate have been indirect as well. The war has caused widespread deforestation across Ukraine while also damaging the country’s renewable energy systems: 90 per cent of the country’s wind power and 50 per cent of its solar energy capacity taken off-line since the war began. Indeed, military operations and a lack of firefighters led to 25 times more forest fires in 2022 than the previous year which has both released vast amounts of CO2 and stopped, or radically slowed, future carbon sequestration.

Beyond its immediate impact on the battlefield in the cities of Ukraine, the war is having tectonic impacts on global energy politics. The war has exposed the downsides of global interdependencies, particularly for those countries whose economic model has relied on low-cost sources of Russian fossil fuels.

But, in many ways, the war’s ultimate impact on the world’s long-term ability to tackle climate change is still unclear.

Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin has provided perhaps the strongest argument for phasing down reliance on fossil fuels – particularly when those fuels come from unreliable autocratic states that use energy as an instrument of coercion. In the EU, for example, total gas consumption fell by nearly 20 per cent in 2022 as a result of fuel-switching and demand-side measures.

But, in the short term, there is a risk of locking in new greenhouse gas emissions as governments, prioritizing their energy independence, sidestep action to reduce their carbon footprints. In many countries, the goal of decarbonization, frequently mentioned before the war, has been replaced by energy affordability. Indeed, across the world, countries are building or reopening coal power stations and investing in oil and gas development.

In the meantime, climate action is getting tangled in a politicized stand-off between the West and Russia, which is putting climate action on the backburner according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

In the run up to COP27 last year, Russia tried to list Crimean emissions in its national level greenhouse gas inventory, a claim that was vigorously disputed by Ukraine as an effort to legitimize the illegal annexation of land.

Russia’s climate envoy also linked Russia’s action on its climate targets to the wider political situation at the conference, somewhat cynically, arguing that Russia could achieve its carbon neutrality target earlier if only sanctions were lifted.

With no end to this devastating war in sight, it is increasingly clear that the impacts of the war in Ukraine will continue to reverberate around the world for years to come. What is equally evident is that the international community, including the OSCE, needs to monitor these impacts and redouble its efforts to avert new security risks as a result of climate change.

Oli Brown, Associate Fellow, Environment and Society Programme.

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