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Russia's War in Ukraine Shows the Cost of Fossil Fuels

One year on from the invasion, the rising human and environmental costs underscore the danger of a world powered by fossil fuels.


Whatever else he was thinking when he sent tanks rolling across the Ukrainian border a year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly didn't mean to make the best case possible for a world without fossil fuels. But along with leaving hundreds of thousands soldiers and civilians dead and wounded and unleashing a global food crisis, that's exactly what he's done.

The War Doesn't Happen Without Oil and Gas

It goes without saying that armies and invasions are beyond expensive. In Russia, one of the top three global producers of oil and gas, significant parts of the funding for war comes from a fossil fuel industry that props up the country’s economy and federal budget. In 2021 alone, 45% of Russia’s federal budget was fueled (no pun intended) by oil and gas revenues.

Where were these revenues coming from? Well, for decades, Russia acted as the European Union’s gas pump, supplying about 40% of the bloc's natural gas by the end of 2021 and – until recently – providing the Kremlin and state-owned gas company Gazprom with both billions in revenue and tremendous leverage over European politics.

As the value of Russia’s fossil fuel exports has risen, so has its military spending. In 2021, military expenditures increased 2.9% – totaling $65.9 billion – at the same time Russia was building up its military presence along the border with Ukraine.

The financial picture has since changed significantly due to a combination of a variety of sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began one year ago. These measures – including an EU ban on Russian coal (August 2022), an EU embargo on Russian seaborne crude oil (December 2022), a joint EU and G7 price cap on Russian oil products, and an EU ban on all Russian refined oil products (February 2023) – are weakening Russia's economy and by extension its ability to fight. But the full effect will take years to kick in. As a former US State Department official told the New York Times, "Sanctions, in general, are more like a marathon than a sprint." 

Even with the sanctions, Russia has still been able to make money, earning EUR 158 billion (USD 169 billion) in revenue from fossil fuels exports during the first six months of the war – with more than half coming from the EU. And as the EU stopped buying, Russia simply started selling to other markets. Plus, even with the reduction in export volumes from sanctions, surging fuel prices meant that Russia’s 2022 revenue was at one time far above previous years.

Additionally, Russia has been taking steps to circumnavigate sanctions. An investigation by Global Witness uncovered that oil from Russia was being mixed with oil from Kazakhstan and exported to Europe, the US, and Asia. Russia has also enlisted a fleet of “dark” tankers to ship crude oil while reducing reliance on Western shipping companies – evading sanctions by operating outside of global regulatory frameworks and engaging in illegitimate ship-to-ship transfers.

If there is any faint silver lining in the gloom here it's that the invasion, rather than solidifying Putin and the fossil industry's grasp on the world economy, has actually sped the global transition away from the oil and gas Russia's finances depend on.

This is far from an unbroken line of progress, however. In the near term, Europe has begun a deeply problematic dash for gas in Africa and the US is expanding liquified natural gas projects to help fill the void once occupied by Russian fuels.

But long term, there are huge reasons for hope. Europe has gone from importing 40% of its gas from Russia to about 17% by August of 2022. The International Energy Agency reports that the war has accelerated Europe's clean energy transition, with renewables now poised to grow so fast that clean energy could become the largest source of electricity generation as early as 2025. Plus, Ukrainian civil society is calling for the country’s own post-war reconstruction to be green and clean.

All of which to say, as much as any hurricane or flood, Putin's war has showed just why we need to quit the fossil fuel habit. And the world – at least in part – seems to have gotten the message.

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The War Has Devastated Both Ukraine and Our Planet

By now, the immense and wide-ranging impacts of the invasion on human life, food security, and more is well and widely documented.

What is less so is the knock-on effects on the planet. After all, these military activities do not come without a carbon footprint – estimated at over 30 million tons of climate-warming greenhouse gases. And that figure mostly reflects data from forest and agricultural fires, as well as oil burnt from attacks on storage depots. Full accounting – when it becomes possible – is likely to point to much higher numbers and even worse consequences for our climate.

For some living through the conflict, the big-picture connections are easy to draw. “Of course the type of destruction is different but fossil fuels caused climate change and it caused this war,” said Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist.

The full scope of impacts will not be realized until after the conflict ends. What we know so far is that in the first four months of the war, satellite monitors identified over 37,000 fires burning across the country. Explosions and fires have contaminated air with particulate matter and toxic gases. Rivers polluted by wrecked industrial facilities. Leaking oil pipelines in wetlands. Damaged water treatment facilities leaking untreated wastewater and sewage into the environment and contaminating water resources.

There is additional concern that heavy metal pollution from military operations can poison agricultural soils. In May 2022, Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture reported that 30% of the country’s farmland was occupied or unsafe due to the ongoing invasion.

As the war now passes the one-year mark, state environmental inspection in Ukraine has recorded more than 2,300 cases of environmental damage, with an estimated $51 billion (USD) in damages from land, air, and water pollution.

In addition, Russia has purposefully attacked Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, increasing instances of blackouts/brownouts and leaving Ukrainian civilians across the country without access to heat, electricity, and, in some cases, water. With these attacks specifically targeting renewable energy generation sites, roughly 90% of Ukraine’s wind power capacity, 30% of its solar PV capacity, and more than 50% of its thermal capacity was forced out of operation by June 2022.

The result is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reported in November that 40% of Ukraine’s energy system had been destroyed by Russia’s “energy terrorism,” presenting real challenges not only to keeping the lights on now but longer-term energy transition in the years after the conflict ends.

Food and Health

Beyond the battlefield, the war has deepened "the worst food crisis in modern history," compounding the hunger spread by surging food prices from COVID-19 supply chain disruptions as well as drought in the Horn of Africa and other climate impacts exacerbated by a warming world.

In part, this comes from Ukraine's unique role in the global food system. Around 71% of land in Ukraine is used for agricultural production. Ukraine, often referred to as “the breadbasket of Europe” is a major supplier of wheat and, together with Russia, it provides 90% of the wheat supply in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Georgia, Mongolia, and Somalia. In addition, the country is a major exporter of corn, sunflower oil, honey, and sugar beets.

Access to these staples is now under real threat as Russian military operations have destroyed agricultural lands, restricted grain shipments, and destroyed Ukrainian ports. A mere two months after the war began, estimates of bee colony losses in Ukraine were as high as 30%. From March to November 2022, Ukraine’s grain and oilseed exports dropped roughly by half, to about 3.5 million metric tons per month.

The result, according to the World Food Programme, is that another 47 million people could go hungry, joining the estimated 276 million people worldwide already facing acute hunger.

The war is also having a pernicious effect on public health closer to the front lines. As the New England Journal of Medicine notes, along with direct casualties from military attacks, “a substantial proportion of civilian morbidity and mortality in Ukraine is undoubtedly attributable to diseases resulting from forced displacement and damage to food and water supply systems, health care and public health facilities, and other civilian infrastructure.”

What’s next?

As previously mentioned, the environmental and climate impacts of Russian aggression in Ukraine will not be fully understood until after the war ends. Research taking place in Ukraine across a variety of scientific fields has been disrupted or downright destroyed through attacks on research facilities and educational institutions.

The conflict in Ukraine had first distracted some world leaders from the climate crisis as they scrambled to find new sources of fossil fuels, but ultimately, the clean energy transition is accelerating – just one of many steps in the right direction.

Another step in the direction of acting on climate is ending the war in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy had called this out during his video address displayed at the COP 27 climate conference in Egypt: “There can be no effective climate policy without the peace.” Zelenskyy believes that world leaders cannot truly tackle the climate crisis unless Russia’s invasion ends.

We can’t predict what happens next in the tragedy now unfolding in Ukraine, but one takeaway is crystal clear: The world needs to get off fossil fuels – fast.

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