Military conflicts significantly affect the future of climate change around the world, even though regular armies have feared for decades that growing climate crises will be the primary cause of future conflict. The Russian-Ukrainian war is not separate from these developments, especially given its direct and indirect repercussions on the issue of climate change, as the associated escalation of energy crises in some countries and major obstruction of the international transition to clean energy sources. Estimates show that, since the war began, the use of fossil fuels is expected to increase by 14% amid a shortage of energy supplies, especially from Russia, which is the largest source of natural gas in the world, contributing around 40% of the needs of European countries. Russia is also the second-largest exporter of petroleum derivatives and the third-largest exporter of coal. The developments of the war in Ukraine have prompted many countries to shore up their fossil fuel imports in the foreseeable future, as was clearly demonstrated in the case of Europe with Moscow’s September 2022 announcement it was suspending natural gas shipments via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
Worsening wars and military conflicts directly affect the issue of climate change in terms of the following aspects:
1. Dangers of a disorderly green transition: Despite the scramble of governments and companies to secure oil, gas and coal supplies in the short term, some analysts say that the Russian-Ukrainian war could accelerate the transition to clean energy in the medium and long term. If oil stays above $150 per barrel in the long term, this could be a dangerous sign for the global economy, as there are real systemic risks that this war could accelerate an unregulated green transition. Certainly, the conflict exposed the legacy of poor planning on the part of European Union (EU) countries to diversify Russian supplies when they had the opportunity to do so. There is also a risk that a rapid transition to renewable energy could be unpredictable, and further destabilize markets.
2. Return to highly polluting energy sources: In contrast to the transition to clean energy to make up for the loss of oil and gas supplies, as well as rising prices, many countries are also turning to a cheap, but highly polluting, energy source: coal. It is worth noting that coal consumption in Europe had been steadily declining in recent years. In October 2021, during the summit of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, many countries called for a total ban on coal. But after the Ukrainian war, plans to close coal plants stopped and the decline in consumption slowed, from around 20% between 2017 and 2019 to just 3% between 2019 and 2021. This will likely slow Europe’s decarbonization in the long term, although in the short term the EU wants to double the development of renewable energy to approach self-sufficiency.
3. Deforestation in the Amazon region: Another less well-known impact of the Ukrainian crisis is the threat of further deforestation in the Amazon region. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, denying environmental concerns, used the war as an argument for further potassium extraction from the Amazon and reducing reliance on Russian imports. The Brazilian president’s statements therefore supported accelerating deforestation, both legally and illegally. This pattern has led many experts to warn of a coming “tipping point,” at which large portions of the rainforests turn into dry savanna, changing weather patterns and releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
4. Escalating risks of “environmental destruction”: On the first day of the Russian war in Ukraine, gamma radiation in the Chernobyl zone was reported at nearly 28 times the annual limit. Ukraine operates 15 nuclear reactors at four different sites. It is possible—even if one of the reactors is damaged—that we see a second Chernobyl disaster. The debris and radiation released in any attack could spread thousands of kilometers, leading to many health problems for citizens, not only in Ukraine, but in nearby countries. On the other hand, there are many outdated coal mines in the Donbas region. They pose a great danger, because when a mine is closed, it cannot be abandoned forever. There are still tasks that must be done, and water that must constantly be pumped to prevent contaminating reservoirs with heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Amid continuing military operations in Ukraine, carrying out these tasks is extremely difficult.
The Russian-Ukrainian war stimulates thinking about the future of the global climate, and associated global geostrategic transformations, which could be illustrated as follows:
1. Non-oil energy alternatives emerge: While the current war may be a short-term setback to global climate goals, in the long term it is likely to accelerate the energy transition. Most Western countries are likely to rely upon green hydrogen as a reliable and affordable future fuel source. Putin cutting off oil and gas supplies forces them to invest in renewable energy at a faster rate, and to forgo the use of fossil fuels in the future. Two weeks into the Ukrainian war, the EU announced plans to install wind turbines, solar panels, and heat pumps faster than ever before. Germany alone announced a 200 billion euros commitment to decarbonize its electric supply by 2035. On the other hand, the future shift towards non-oil energy could harm the economies of countries that mostly rely on exporting oil and gas, and their geostrategic importance will decline.
2. Global food security crisis intensifies: The war highlighted Russia and Ukraine’s role as major players in global agriculture. Furthermore, Russia is the largest supplier of fertilizers and their raw components, such as nitrogen. While the near-term effects of agricultural disruptions associated with availability and price will be most acute in places that rely on Black Sea grains (such as Libya, Pakistan, and sub-Saharan Africa), it has been estimated that there will be devastating global multiplier effects. Increased fuel costs and limited fertilizer will reduce the availability of grain and raise prices worldwide, disproportionately affecting those with the least purchasing power.
3. Climate refugee crisis worsens: Negative climate developments are greatly related to the refugee crisis. Those most likely to be affected are in countries vulnerable to climate change in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and small island states. But this does not mean that the rest of the world is not affected by these negative phenomena. The threats of rising sea levels, rising temperature, forest fires, drought, and food and water shortages are already forcing people to relocate. It is worth noting that since 2008, according to the UN Refugee Agency, 21.5 million people a year have been forcibly displaced due to weather-related events such as floods, storms, forest fires, and high temperatures. These indicators are likely to rise in coming decades, with predictions from the International Environmental Partnership (IEP) that 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters. The Ukrainian war adds to predictions of a worsening global climate, especially given UN estimates that more than 8 million people fled Ukraine as a result of Russian military intervention.
In conclusion, although the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war is leading to high levels of environmental destruction and global climate degradation, some indicators show that it could be an impetus towards reforming the global climate system, accelerating the transition to sustainable energy. What may determine that are the policies of states in the foreseeable future, especially given the multiple weaknesses the war has revealed with regard to climate security, both within states and at the global level, which requires concerted global efforts to limit the negative, escalating repercussions of climate change.