Russia-Ukraine: one more conflict fuelling climate chaos

One month on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the DEC, UNICEF, Oxfam and others continue to raise funds for the desperate bombed out children, women and men of Ukraine. All focus is on the immediate humanitarian needs, as the world waits in hope for a ceasefire that will lead to negotiations that will bring this conflict to an end.  Whenever that moment arrives, as the people of Ukraine pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and cities, the pandemic will still be with us, the climate emergency will still be with us.

And at that point, we need to ask another question: what was the climate burden of this war?

It’s true this war was not waged for oil, like so many others have been, but oil and gas have become central to it, leading to a feeding frenzy for replacement sources for Russian oil and gas.  And this war will also serve to drive the feeding frenzy of a new arms race since many leaders seem to think that ever more money on weaponry makes you safer.

In all this madness, it’s as if COP26 didn’t happen and ‘Code Red for Humanity’ was never pronounced by the IPCC.  This war has certainly set so much back.

And in the midst of this, there is another truth: that big oil and big militaries are indivisible. All major militaries are entirely fossil fuel dependent and will be so for the foreseeable future.

So, as Russia continues its onslaught and Ukrainian forces fight back, what might this mean for the climate? For the region and wider? For as we surely know, one nation’s pollution is another one’s poison since climate patterns care not from where the pollution originated.

Military emissions and war

While it is impossible to fully quantify the carbon burden that has accrued from the past and present devastation of 20th and 21st century ‘fossil-fuelled’ wars  (two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and now Ukraine) thanks to projects like Oil Change International and academics such as Professor Neta Crawford  in the USA and Dr Stuart Parkinson here in the UK, we are getting a sense of the scale of global military emissions.

For us, rooted in development campaigning as we are (trade, tax, climate), our work at Transform Defence project is a part of this growing body of international research. Our particular interest is where military emissions and spending impact on development – and impact it does.

Global military spending is currently $2 trillion per year and G20 nations account for 87% of that (day to day operations, overseas bases, conducting war / conflict etc).  They are locked into fossil fuel dependent hardware like tanks, warships and fighter jets – the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the US and the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world and the MoD, by its own admission, is the single largest contributor to GHG emissions within UK central government, responsible for more than half of the total.

It is estimated (conservatively) that the global military and defence industry account for several percentage points of the total global emissions, at least compatible with emission from the global civilian aviation industry.

And COP26 did nothing to reverse the fact that militaries are exempt from compulsory full reporting of their GHG emissions to UN processes. It is also the case that they have no realistic or practical zero-carbon plans.

What might the GHG burden of the Russia/Ukraine conflict look like?

We can see from TV images alone, the scale of the Russian build up, use of many hundreds of bombs and missiles, the utter devastation of towns and cities. And the conflict is not over.

If we look to Iraq, for which there is some research and data (albeit limited), the initial phase of the 2003 Iraq invasion involved nearly 180,000 US-led coalition troops. Just before the invasion, the US estimated that Russia had up to 190,000 personnel ready for full invasion of Ukraine. As in Iraq, so hundreds of fossil-fuel driven tanks and fighter jets, carbon-intensive manufactured and emission-producing artillery and ballistic missiles are being deployed in Ukraine.

Oil Change International estimated that in the first four years of the Iraq invasion, fossil fuel consumption contributed to 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e), fuel for supply chain contributed to another 45 MMTCO2e and cement produced to meet war-induced demand (ie reconstruction) contributed 33 MMTCO2e, add up to a total of 128 MMTCO2e, averaging 32 MMTCO2e a year.

Some have warned that we have yet to see the worst of the Russian assault. We can but sincerely hope not. However, if it were to drag on, we can expect a similar level of GHG emissions from this war (initiated by the second strongest military in the world) as in the Iraq War (led by the world’s strongest military), producing in a single year as much carbon emissions as the whole country of Switzerland (32 MMTCO2e in 2020). It could potentially be even greater, since Ukraine is larger than Iraq in both the land and population sizes and unlike Iraq, Ukraine has a modern equipped military. Furthermore, this estimate does not take account of the environmental destruction and its associated long-lasting  climate impact into account.

Human and development impact

Before Ukraine, there was a 6:1 ratio of nations’ military spending to public climate finance (2020 figures: public climate finance $321bn (CPI) vs $1981bn global military spending (SIPRI)). That gap will likely widen since one outcome of this war – tragically – will be increased military spending to acquire yet more fossil fuel dependent hardware. Meanwhile, the SDGs face a funding gap of something in the order of $2.5 trillion annually  (UN 2019 pre-Covid estimate); COP26 failed on Loss and Damage; poorer nations are expected to face up to $75 billion six-year shortfall in climate finance (2020-2025, Oxfam).

One case in point: the F-35. Each plane costs more than £100m to buy, drinks 6000 litres of fuel per flying hour and took 20 years to develop (and still not combat-ready). The $2 trillion lifetime cost of F-35s could have funded WHO funding at $2bn per annum for the next 1,000 years or UN peacekeeping operations at current $4.5bn per annum for the next 444 years.

And ‘Colossal waste’ is how 50 Nobel laureates recently described the annual $2 trillion on the military, calling instead for annual 2% cut to military spending worldwide for five years, with money redirected to tackle pandemics, climate crisis and extreme poverty.

We agree wholeheartedly. Moreover, as development campaigners, we argue that runaway global military spending and the global military’s contribution to climate change is absolutely structurally relevant to core social justice issues of power imbalance, poverty, displacement and ecological breakdown.

There is no nation on planet earth that is not affected by climate change. Ukraine is no different. The report by the Met Office for the British Embassy in Ukraine ahead of COP26 found that “Throughout the 2010s, agricultural production in Ukraine was repeatedly hit by serious harvest failures in vegetable plants and grain crops due to low rainfall and severe droughts… Future climate projections of decreased summer rainfall and increasing temperatures, combined with increasing frequency of heat extremes would exacerbate these risks to agricultural production.” Furthermore, “in a 2°C warmer world eastern-central Europe will experience higher warming than the global average as well as more intense and frequent heat extremes.”

And so the people of Ukraine now join the people of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and others. Populations facing the horrors of war while all the time living on the frontline of climate change – climate change that is itself fuelled by conflict waged by rich nations deploying fossil fuel reliant weapons of war.

War is destructive of so much, not least in the way it fundamentally degrades the affected environment, significantly reducing its ability to store carbon. The climate consequence of Russia’s military destruction of Ukraine’s vast environment in the context of the urgency of tackling the climate emergency is unthinkable and unforgivable.

This desperate state of affairs was summed up by Svitlana Krakovska, the Ukrainian climate scientist speaking in the most recent IPCC conference in late February after the invasion started. She expressed her sadness that the IPCC’s latest findings of overwhelming evidence of the devastating impacts of climate change around the world would have to ‘compete for media space with war.’ Indeed, that hugely important IPCC sixth assessment report was described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as being “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership’’.

It had dropped out of the news cycle within a day.

Deborah Burton and Dr. Ho-Chih Lin

Tipping Point North South / Transform Defence project. @TransformDef