War is an environmental disaster, but Ukraine can rebuild greener

This story was originally published by cabling and appears here as part of the climatic table collaboration.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a heavily industrialized country Ukraine has made progress in protecting its natural resources. More than 270 sites now make up its Emerald Network of protected conservation areas, representing 10 percent of the country, and logging restrictions have helped preserve the unique plants and animals that call those areas home.

Even in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, still contaminated with radiation from the 1986 nuclear disaster, populations of bears and wolves have returned and flourished. Ukraine is still industrial and many of its cities are choked with pollution, but before Russia’s invasion, it had also gotten greener.

“But it is clear that the war erases all this because no one can protect the protected areas,” says biologist Oleksiy Vasyliuk, head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group. With every missile, mortar or tank that explodes, toxic chemicals and shrapnel corrupt an environment the country has worked hard to safeguard. “And unfortunately, you can’t do anything about it, it’s just going to be a huge contamination of the territory,” he says. “Dozens of the largest industrial cities have essentially been turned into garbage.”

Often forgotten in the context of war, the environmental costs of the invasion they have received an unusual amount of attention since it began eight months ago. That’s due in part to an unprecedented amount of data coming out of the country in the form of social media reports, remote monitoring and satellite imagery, says Doug Weir, director of research at the Observatory of Conflict and the Environment, which has been monitoring the situation from the UK It is also due to the attention of the Ukrainian government, which says it intends to hold Russia responsible for the huge ecological price.

While the Vasyliuk Nature Conservation Group of Ukraine and other organizations continue to assess the damage on the ground, the government recently calculated the bill for $34 billion. Next month, he plans to present a framework at the UN Climate Conference in Egypt that will outline his rationale for how its damaged ecosystems and poisoned air, soil and waterways translate into specific costs Russia should cover, though it is not clear as. would be paid.

Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine’s environment has manifested itself in both obvious and hidden ways. Explosions spew toxic munitions into the air, ground, and water. But that also pulverizes the built environment (concrete, pipes, wiring, everything you’d have in a house) and adds even more toxic substances to the surroundings. Attacks on chemical plants, wastewater treatment facilities and energy infrastructure release particularly nasty pollutants. “There were 36 chemical plants in Severodonetsk alone,” Vasyliuk says, referring to a city in the heart of the Luhansk region that has seen heavy fighting. “They are all destroyed, and most likely led to contamination of the [Siverskyi Donets] river.”

Busted tanks and other vehicles leak oil and diesel. The fires aerosolize pollutants, releasing chemicals and particles into the atmosphere, which then fall as a kind of toxic snow. The battles also spark forest fires, which engulf previously protected areas: 250,000 acres have burned in Ukraine so far, says Vasyliuk.

Groundwater contamination is singularly insidious. Wind does a good job of blowing air pollution out of a given area, but if the chemicals seep underground, they tend to stay there much longer, says Nickolaï Denisov, deputy director of the Zoï Environment Network, which has long monitored Ukraine. weather. “It’s a much more stable environment,” says Denisov. “Once it’s contaminated, it’s contaminated. And it can take a long, long time, many years, for the groundwater to get rid of the contamination.”

Contamination during the war is also happening indirectly, says Denisov. During normal operations, coal mines in Donbas, for example, have to pump water to prevent flooding. But when the war interrupted that, rising water levels corrupted local groundwater supplies. That’s not to mention the extensive damage to the water infrastructure itself, which has cut off supply to million Ukrainians.

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Less obviously, the war has put pressure on the government to reverse some of the environmental gains of recent years. Ukrainians have to find other ways to heat their homes when the gas goes out, which increases the scale of logging, says Vasyliuk. Trees that are not incinerated during battles are cut down for fuel. This spring, the government suspended public access to certain types of logging data and canceled the so-called “season of silence,” when loggers are prohibited from logging during the calving period of forest animals. Both votes, long sought by forestry groups, passed despite protests from environmental groups.

“Our state is trying to simplify access to natural resources as much as possible, and this is bad news,” says Vasyliuk. “We can’t stop it.”

When the time comes for reconstruction, Vasyliuk hopes to see a change that adds more land to the country’s protected areas. The war has already rendered vast areas of valuable farmland unusable because it is now contaminated with heavy metals and covered in unexploded bombs, but those areas could be added to Ukraine’s protected Emerald Network, Vasyliuk suggests. He points to the success of the reconstruction in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. “If nature is left alone, it will recover,” he says.

It remains to be seen how the current government attention to environmental damage will translate into reconstruction. Weir points to the current state of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a huge industrial facility on the outskirts of the disputed city of Mariupol. Before the war, the plant was the focus of environmental organizations hoping to clean up the air in the nearby city, which is one of the most polluted in Europe. Some officials have suggested that war damage and disruption could lead to new, cleaner technology or reduced operations.

But the fate of the facility depends on the broader conflict and the complicated local reconstruction policy. Perhaps Ukraine will keep the area, in which case there will be the same old dispute over cleaning up the plant versus preserving the thousands of jobs there. “It’s easy to say things to the media, but the reality is that it’s going to be political,” says Weir. What if Russia has that land? “Is Russia going to invest the amount of money that will be needed in these areas? I don’t know,” she says. “It’s going to be a big problem to deal with.”

One thing that could push Ukraine toward continued environmental reform is the country’s ambition to join the European Union, which requires compliance with the bloc’s environmental laws as a prerequisite for admission. But financing that transition will be a challenge, regardless of the political situation when the war ends. Initially, there was a push towards hold Russia responsible for the costs, including environmental damage. That would potentially be a task for the UN General Assembly, which could pass a resolution to freeze and repurpose Russian funds abroad. But despite calls for reparations from Ukraine, that push seems to have decreased among its allies, says Weir, as some countries like the US seem to recognize the precedent such action would set.

That money may come from other sources, from international environmental groups or from the European Union, which is now considering how to help fix the country. “There is talk of this kind of Marshall Plan for Ukraine,” says Krzysztof Michalak, senior program manager at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, who has been monitoring the environmental situation. “There is a plan for a reconstruction fund, so a lot of money.”

The question will be what to prioritize. Ukraine’s water, power and transportation systems are all in shambles and urgently need fixing for the good of the people. And a postwar deployment of renewable energy you need to avoid possible drawbacks. For example, hydroelectric dams significantly alter river ecosystems. And you wouldn’t want to install solar panels or wind turbines in a way that requires cutting down even more trees. As a potential solution, Vasyliuk suggests prioritizing solar-powered agriculture in polluted areas.

But as the price of renewable energy deployment falls, rebuilding a green Ukrainian economy is more feasible than ever. “Green reconstruction is still a good investment,” says Michalak. “It’s not as expensive as it seems.”

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