A few days after the war broke out in Ukraine on February 24, an alarming climate report also appeared. In it, scientists from the UN climate panel IPCC warned that climate change is happening much faster than expected.
Despite the dismal report, countries have increasingly joined forces in recent years to combat global warming. But because of the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis no longer seems to be the most important crisis of the moment.
Will the climate and the environment bear the brunt of this war? Analyst Laura Birkman, from The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, answers the most important questions.
What are the environmental effects of the war?
“Eastern Ukraine in particular is highly industrialized. There are still many old steel and chemical factories from the time of the Soviet Union. There have been warnings about this for years,” says Birkman. “You have so-called ‘waste ponds’ that are popping up. It seems that the Russians do not try very hard to avoid certain targets. If old factories or chemical waste ponds are hit, a very large environmental disaster can arise.”
According to Birkman, the release of all those tanks and other war material is ‘difficult to map’. “But there is certainly a chance of very high methane emissions if, for example, pipelines are hit. As a greenhouse gas, methane is much more potent than CO2 and accounts for about 25 percent of global emissions of harmful greenhouse gases from human activities.”
Is the climate in jeopardy now that everyone is watching Ukraine?
“I don’t think so,” Birkman says. “Climate change is no longer a separate issue competing with security on a priority list. Look at the US, climate change is now seen as an outright threat to national security. It’s hard to ignore it by labeling it that way.”
Birkman thinks that the war in Ukraine will mean that much more money will go to defense in many countries. “But defense emissions are huge, so they will eventually have to become more sustainable there. The extra expenditure offers a great opportunity to make a big difference.”
Can we sustainably get rid of Russian gas?
Birkman: “We can’t switch to clean energy overnight. We can’t absorb that in the short term and that’s why we need coal. As a result, the emissions will only increase at first. We have to get gas from other countries which are also not necessarily reliable. Ultimately, gas and coal are fossil fuels, which is precisely what we want to get rid of.”
Can the European climate plans go in the trash?
“No, I’m just optimistic,” Birkman says. “In the medium and long term, these plans will take off. Things are moving very quickly now. Look at Germany. Yes, 100 billion euros there will go to defense. But what was covered in the news was that there will also be 200 billion euros for sustainable energy. These include the development of hydrogen technology and the expansion of the network of charging installations for electric cars.”
“Companies such as Shell and BP that have now left Russia will also invest even more in sustainable energy,” concludes Birkman.