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Climate another casualty of the war in Ukraine

June 7, 2023

In the year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war's carbon footprint is similar to the entire emissions of Belgium, conflict emission experts say.

Fires burn in bombed out buildings
Rebuilding civilian infrastructure generates the most carbon when counting conflict emissions Image: UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/REUTERS

Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine has been highly damaging, not only in terms of civilian and military casualties, and the destruction of homes, infrastructure and the environment, but its impact on the climate.

While a burst dam in Ukraine is overt evidence of the environmental impacts of war, a new report quantifies often hidden emissions generated by the conflict that could threaten climate goals

Released today to coincide with a preliminary meeting of climate leaders in Bonn, Germany, ahead of this year's UN climate summit in the UAE, the report by the Initiative on GHG Accounting of War breaks down the conflict emissions beyond direct warfare. 

The Europe-based research group analyzed multiple sectors including emissions from fires that destroy infrastructure and the environment, the degradation of carbon sinks, post-conflict reconstruction, and the movement of refugees.

Emissions generated over the first twelve months of the war totalled 120 million tons of carbondioxide, according to the authors. This is slightly less than the annual emissions of Belgium, whose per capita emissions in 2019 were the seventh highest in the European Union.

Titled "Climate damage caused by Russia's war in Ukraine," the report also flags the climate impact of the war after it has ended.

With "an aggressive neighbour to the east," Europe will go through major rearmament to create "sufficient deterrence," said lead author, Lennerd de Klerk.

A more robust military in Europe will see "emissions rise at a time when they have to go down," he said.

At the same time, a massive reconstruction program will further increase emissions.

Reconstruction costing the climate

Projected reconstruction constitutes around 42% of all conflict emissions for the first year of the war in Ukraine. They are by far the highest source of emissions due to the use of "very carbon intensive" concrete and steel, noted de Klerk.

Attacks on energy infrastructure during the winter months also considerably increased emissions associated with reconstruction, he explained.

The embedded carbon in building reconstruction is by far the highest source of what the report calls civilian infrastructure emissions, generating almost twice the greenhouse gases as transport and infrastructure.

Russia dominates warfare emissions

Actual warfare is the second highest source of emissions, mostly due to fossil fuel consumption.

De Klerk noted that a lack of transparency from the opposing armies made it difficult to obtain exact figures on fossil fuel use, forcing the researchers to use proxy data.

According to the report, of the near 22 million tons of carbon dioxide generated by warfare, less than 14% was attributed to the production of ammunition and military equipment.

Meanwhile, a total of 64% of warfare emissions were generated by Russian fossil fuel use alone in the first year of the conflict.

The author says the emissions of a cruise missile are relatively small compared to the massive reliance on fossil fuel for moving around during warfare, especially given Russian military reliance on outdated and "extremely inefficient" equipment — including tanks from the 1960s.

As the war has largely been a ground war, diesel fuel has been the main source of emissions — rather than jet fuel, the dominant source of carbon dioxide generated during the Iraq war. 

A man looks at a destrozed building
Displacement and rebuilding are among numerous climate impacts of warImage: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP

Military and conflict emissions go unreported

Lennerd de Klerk is at the Bonn climate talks this week as part of a consortium of military and conflict emission researchers who are lobbying for carbon bootprints to be included in the "Global Stocktake" of emissions to be finallized at COP28 — and which aims to judge progress on emission reductions.  

Due to the difficulty of quantifying conflict emissions, researchers have so far mostly sought to count the carbon bootprint of the day-to-day running of global military installations.

"At 5.5% of global emissions, the big fossil fuel-reliant militaries of the world have a significant part to play in reduction and mitigation," said Deborah Burton, a conflict emissions expert at UK-based non-profit, Tipping Point North South, who is also part of a military emissions panel at the climate summit in Bonn.

But this figure is likely much higher.

"At the moment, there is only an obligation to report data on military fuel use, and this is voluntary," noted Linsey Cottrell of the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a UK-based monitoring group.

She adds that "military fuel use, fires, use of munitions and damage to infrastructure, and all the reconstruction needs" are not included in UN emissions accounting.

According to a 2021 report by CEOBS, UK military emissions alone are at least three times higher than the 11 million tons of carbon dioxide reported in 2018.

Negotiations at the Climate Change Conference begins in Bonn, Germany

'Climate goals at considerable risk'

Meanwhile, annual emissions from the US military, the world's largest, were higher than Sweden or Denmark when properly counted, researchers noted in 2017.

In 2020, rich countries spent six times more on militaries than public climate finance, according to Burton. 

Conflict emissions are compounding the climate impacts. "The multitude of emission sources linked to fighting a war puts climate goals at considerable risk," said Cottrell.

"We wanted to show that this act of aggression not only impacts Ukrainians but all of us," said de Klerk of the broader climate consequences of military and war.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
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