Conflict carbon could cost Russia billions in reparations

Bombed buildings in Ukraine
Billions of litres of burned fuel, mountains of fresh steel and concrete, hundreds of strikes on energy systems - first two years of war are a net hit to the climate, analysis finds.

In 2022, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of a resolution making Moscow responsible for compensating Ukraine for the war, and the Council of Europe has established a registry of damage.

A surge in climate emissions from the war in Ukraine could cost Russia billions of dollars in additional reparations, according to carbon tracking experts and the Ukrainian government.

Billions of litres of fuel used by military vehicles, nearly a million hectares of fields and forests set ablaze, hundreds of oil and gas structures blown up and vast amounts of steel and cement used to fortify hundreds of miles of front lines - the emissions from two years of invasion add up to roughly 175 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the most comprehensive such study of any war to date.

The emissions are equivalent to the annual use of 90 million cars. On balance, the invasion has been a net hit to the climate, with a weakened Ukrainian economy being more than offset by conflict emissions, people and production displaced to other countries and military spending surging globally, say the report authors from the Initiative on Greenhouse Gas Accounting of War (IGGAW).

Using the latest peer-reviewed methodology to put a cost to each tonne of carbon emitted, the Russian Federation faces a USD 32 billion climate reparations bill from its first 24 months of war, it estimates.

To overcome the scarcity of data from wartime secrecy, physical danger and displaced experts, the IGGAW, an association of carbon accounting experts funded by Western governments and foundations, relied heavily on satellite data, governmental information, scientific studies and open-source intelligence, interviews with experts and industry reports, among other information.

War emissions 

Around a third of the war emissions come from military activity, especially fuel used by Russian vehicles, the single greatest source of climate emissions amounting to some 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), the analysis found. 

Around another third is attributed to the huge quantities of steel and concrete that has and will be needed for Ukrainian reconstruction following extensive damage to the country.

Another roughly one third is caused by wartime fires, the rerouting of commercial planes, strikes on energy infrastructure and the movement of nearly seven million Ukrainian refugees and Russian refuseniks.

The size and intensity of fires has increased significantly since the invasion, on both sides of the frontline. The researchers developed the first ever manual attribution process of linking fires to military causes, which suggested that scorched fields and smashed forests are responsible for nearly 23 MtCO2e.

Satellite images reveal that some 27,000 fires have scorched nearly a million hectares of land. Nearly three quarters are near the front lines, where fire management infrastructure has been all but abandoned and conditions for responders are treacherous. 

In 2022, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of a resolution making Moscow responsible for compensating Ukraine for the war, and the Council of Europe has established a registry of damage.

But higher intensity fires have been seen country-wide, as foresters, fire crews and equipment have been mobilised or reassigned to cities, slowing down response times, the report says. Fire suppression by air has also been reduced and about a third (38%) of Ukraine’s 4,216 fire trucks damaged. 

Strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure including fossil fuel depots and the Nord Stream pipeline are also a significant cause of emissions. 

The destruction of the latter resulted in a week-long undersea eruption of methane with a climate impact equivalent to as much as 14 MtCO2e, while a months-long uncontrolled fire on a Black Sea drilling platform is thought to have burned up more than 150 million cubic metres of natural gas. 

At least 15 Ukrainian oil-related storage facilities suffered large fires, contributing to an estimated 1.1 MtCO2e in emissions, while gas networks suffered at least 277 hits. 

The report authors noted an unusual impact from the single most powerful greenhouse gas, sulphur hexafluoride or SF6, which has escaped in unusually high amounts during the conflict. Used to insulate electrical switchgear, it has nearly 23,000 more heating potential than carbon dioxide. 

Some 40 tonnes of SF6, equivalent to about a million tonnes of CO2,, are thought to have escaped after over 1,000 Russian strikes damaged around half of Ukraine’s high-voltage network facilities, they found.

Indirect emissions

Meanwhile, diverted flight routes above some 18 million km2 of Ukrainian and Russian airspace has added hours to journeys between Europe and Asia that consume additional fuel. Virgin Atlantic stopped flights from London to Hong Kong after almost 30 years, citing the detour, while Finnair and SAS have closed or reduced flights. The net emissions are thought to total just over 24 MtCO2.

Fortifications in Ukraine and European rearmament is also driving demand for explosives, steel and other carbon-intensive materials.

Total global military expenditure reached $2.4 trillion in 2023, increasing by 6.8% in real terms since 2022, the steepest year-on-year increase since 2009. Besides production, long-distance deliveries of heavy arms contributes to the emissions generated.

The Ukrainian government welcomed the report, saying it will contribute to a compensation case against Russia. In 2022, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of a resolution making Moscow responsible for compensating Ukraine for the war, and the Council of Europe has established a registry of damage, including climate emissions. Frozen Russian assets could be used to settle the costs.

Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine's minister of environmental protection and natural resources said: "Ukraine today is the epicenter of Russia's environmental terror. Nevertheless, we are keeping up with the times and are actively involved in finding global solutions. 

"Amid the war, Ukraine has been an active participant in the UN climate summit. We have opened a Climate Office and approved a climate policy strategy until 2035. We are waiting for the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine to approve the main climate law," he added.

The country is also planning to launch an emissions trading system and to join the EU's Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, he said. 

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