With the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, environmental experts and activists are warning of a spate of problems, including long-lasting damage to the war-ravaged country’s urban, agricultural and industrial areas.
Almost two months after its invasion, Russia has launched its long-feared offensive in eastern Ukraine along the 300-mile front near the Donbass, a region with a 200-year history of coal mining and heavy industry.
The past seven weeks have been marked by death, displacement and the destruction of a country’s landscape that will take years to repair, experts told ABC News. In addition to the direct impact on Ukrainians, the consequences of the war will be felt in social, economic and environmental terms.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises a number of unique and potentially serious environmental concerns not only for the people of Ukraine but for the entire region, including much of Europe,” said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law , opposite ABC News. “These human effects of war take many forms and many dimensions, and many of them continue long after hostilities have ended.”
While there were catastrophic environmental consequences during World Wars I and II, conflicts in more recent history provide a more detailed blueprint for the sheer volume of greenhouse gases emitted during modern wars.
As a result of the global war on terror that began in 2001, 1.2 million tons of greenhouse gases were released, equivalent to the annual emissions of 257 million passenger cars – more than double the number of cars on US roads today, according to a 2019 report , published by Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and sulfur dioxide emitted by military vehicles and other heavy machinery, Afghanistan has experienced severe deforestation as a result of illegal logging, particularly by warlords, which then destroys wildlife habitat , according to the report.
“We now understand the ecological dimensions of war in a way that we didn’t know decades ago,” Muffett said. “This is a particularly egregious situation because the whole world is calling on Russia to end its invasion immediately.”
Once the conflict is over, the environment in Ukraine will be the local government’s “No. 1 priority,” Doug Weir, research and policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, told ABC News.
According to experts, these are the areas of greatest environmental concern:
Ukraine is a heavily industrialized country, especially in its eastern regions. It contains a large number of chemical plant mines and refineries that produce substances like ammonia and urea, Muffett said.
Assessing damage from attacks on industrial sites and new nuclear facilities will be among the Ukrainian government’s priorities, Weir said.
In addition, there are “serious concerns” about the forced closure of several coal mines, which are now being flooded with acidic mine runoff without proper methods in place to pump out the water, Weir said. These toxins then seep into the aquifers
“We have already seen indications of how this could play out,” she said, adding that several refineries in Ukraine have already been affected. “One of the things the lessons of the Kuwait invasion and the Iraq war teach us is that strikes against facilities of this type pose a significant risk of massive releases and really long-term damage.”
Researchers estimate that millions of people could be malnourished in the years following the invasion due to a lack of arable land.
Initial assessments show large swathes of farmland are affected by heavy shelling and unexploded ordinances, Weir said.
Olha Boiko, a Ukrainian climate activist and coordinator of the Climate Action Network for Eastern Europe and East Asia, said she and her fellow campaigners who are still in Ukraine are concerned about the state of agricultural fields and their suitability for wheat cultivation after the war is one of the country’s biggest exports, she said.
Wildlife and natural ecosystems
The plethora of military vehicles tramping across the Ukrainian border create an unforgiving landscape, experts said.
According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, the Ukrainian military has planted landmines over at least one beach near Odessa in an attempt to defend its country.
Boiko also claimed that Russian forces blew up oil export equipment, polluted the Black Sea and filled fields with land mines found as Russian forces withdrew from the regions around Kyiv.
Fighting near Kherson, near Ukraine’s southern coast, resulted in fires in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve large enough to be visible from space and likely destroying trees and unique bird habitats, the observatory said.
“We have seen risks to wildlife and biodiversity in Ukraine, with active fighting in non-significant wetlands,” Muffett said.
One of Russia’s military strategies has been to besiege cities by firing guns at them indiscriminately, Weir said.
When Russian troops withdrew the areas on the outskirts of Kyiv after failing to take the capital, the devastation left in their wake by cities like Bucha, Borodyanka and Irpin was immediately visible.
Buildings were burned down or completely destroyed. Burnt out cars lay on the streets. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and ashes.
The rebuilding phase will be a “huge task,” Weir said.
“From an environmental standpoint, a tremendous amount of work will be required to properly assess these sites and locate potentially hazardous sites,” Weir said, adding that the environmental remediation process for potentially hazardous sites can be complex and expensive.
Shortly after the conflict began, Russian troops seized the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl power plant, raising concerns that stray explosives could trigger another radioactive event at the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
The destroyed reactor was sealed under a $2 billion stadium-sized metal structure in 2019, but the other three pristine reactors remain fully exposed. Within them is a pool of 5 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel, as well as dangerous isotopes such as uranium and plutonium. If hit, the camp has the potential to cause an even greater disaster than 1986 and could trigger widespread evacuations across Europe, Muffett said.
“Conducting active military operations in a country with four nuclear facilities and 15 active nuclear reactors poses exceptional risks,” Muffett said, admonishing Russia to target Chernobyl immediately, even though “there are no legitimate military targets associated with that location.”
Russian troops cut power to Chernobyl in ways the site wasn’t “assisted” for, and untrained Russian soldiers disrupted radioactive ground and kicked up dust as they moved through the area, Muffett said.
“We’ve seen missile strikes actually set a nuclear facility on fire,” she said. “And in the immediate hours after the fire broke out, firefighters were unable to reach the blaze because they were in a live-fire situation. These are truly exceptional risks.”
The role of Russian oil in the conflict
The conflict in Ukraine is the latest demonstration of the “deep ties between fossil fuels and conflict,” Muffett said. Boiko, who left Kyiv on February 24, said the connection fossil fuels are playing in the current war is “obvious” as Russia uses funds from its oil industry to finance the conflict.
“We’ve seen Putin’s regime try to arm its own natural gas and oil resources to intimidate countries in Europe and beyond not to come to Ukraine to help,” Muffett said. “And so, in every way imaginable, this is a fossil fueled conflict.”
The environmental activists who remain in Ukraine, those who are not helping with immediate humanitarian aid, draw attention to the fact that the EU and the US have been “very dependent” on Russia’s fossil fuels for years, Boiko said.
While the US has imposed sanctions on all Russian oil and other energy sources, the European Union’s embargo only covers coal and not oil and gas. According to the Observatory, around 40% of EU gas comes from Russia.
“This is exactly the lever that Russia used to basically urge other countries not to impose sanctions, not to do anything about this war, so as not to help Ukraine,” Boiko said.
But Boiko said the conflict and its aftermath could eventually lead to positive steps in the fight against climate change as sanctions imposed on Russia result in reduced fossil fuel consumption. She said the fossil fuel phase-out could happen faster after essentially eliminating a major world player in oil exports.
“The fact that this conflict is accelerating talks within Europe about how to break free from dependence on fossil oil and fossil gas is also a big step forward,” Muffett said.