Miroslav Havránek: War Is Damaging the Climate and Will Scar Ukraine for Many Decades. Yet It Offers Hope for the Whole World

Published: Feb 23, 2023 Reading time: 17 minutes
Miroslav Havránek: War Is Damaging the Climate and Will Scar Ukraine for Many Decades. Yet It Offers Hope for the Whole World
© Alyona Budagovska

A year of war has put an enormous strain not only on the Ukrainian people but also on their environment. They will have to deal with craters in their fields, chemical contamination of the soil and the effects of forest fires for many years after the war. Miroslav Havránek, director of the Czech Environmental Information Agency, believes that the West's accelerated industrial transformation can offset the immense carbon burden of the war. And this transformation has just started.

Is there reliable information available today on the current state of the environment in Ukraine?

If you look at how wars are going, this is the first time a war has been on social media in a big way. And strangely enough, we have a lot of information about it and its environmental impact. Because from every fight, every shell impact, there is some footage in the infosphere, whether it's a satellite photo or somebody taking pictures on the ground. Compared to how wars have been previously fought, the amount of information is enormous.

Is there any way to monitor environmental damage directly?

From the Ukrainian side, yes. From the beginning of the war, the Ukrainians realised that the environmental damage would be enormous from both physical destruction and contamination perspectives. In the context of war, there is always talk about contamination and little thought about physical destruction, but it is essential to remember that every artillery shell contains energy in addition to chemical compounds which can alter the environment at the moment of impact and destroy the living and non-living forces of the enemy as well as the environment surrounding them.

We have satellite images from Maxar where you can see hundreds of artillery craters in fields. And it's a pretty picture until you realise there are lovely treetops on the edge of that field, and one of each crater is about this big. They're just five-metre holes that someone has to bury afterwards.

The scale of the war is enormous. Tens of thousands of shells are fired every day. And if you take the energy that an artillery shell contains, then about every 14 days, it's the energy of one Hiroshima-type nuclear bomb . When a grenade hits a forest, it is very likely to start a fire or simply destroy the trees and kill all the animals in that place, not to mention the people. And when a strike hits a populated area, it generates waste in addition to human suffering. And there's no shortage of it. když dopadne do obydlené oblasti, tak kromě lidského utrpení generuje taky odpad. A není ho málo. 

What are the estimated impacts of the war on living organisms today? Is it fair to say that species diversity has already declined significantly in Ukraine?

You can't judge it that way because it can only be adequately measured across the board. We know how many forests have been burned or how many are damaged by fighting, but I have not seen figures for the decline in biodiversity. But there are records of the loss of breeding sites and local extinctions due to the constant shelling of the Black and Azov Sea areas. Of course, in some places, habitats are being polluted and so on. Another thing is that in the case of poorly supplied soldiers, hunting increases the pressure on wildlife.

Loss of coastal nesting sites and contaminated water

You talked about endangered species. Are any of them in real danger of extinction?

I had a report from Oleg Dudkin, the director general of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds. He gave examples of several endangered species that typically reside, for example, on the Black Sea coast, where there has been a lot of fighting. There is talk of local extinction, the loss of tens of thousands of individuals. But it is too early to say whether any species will become extinct due to the war.

What do you think the long-term effects o f such damage will be after the war?

According to my colleague Michael Hosek from EUROPARC, it might not be so bad for biodiversity. Of course, it will be problematic in areas where the local extinction of species occurs. But there will be rapid regeneration in the habitats left to nature due to the war, albeit in an altered state. The centuries-old oak forests will not recover quickly, but species will return or perhaps be purposefully reintroduced by humans.

Might disturbing the landscape at least help to create new habitats?

There will be some positives, but the negatives far outweigh them. There will be room for species focused on more extreme conditions rather than any protected or endangered species getting back in. In the case of agricultural production, it is in the interests of not only Ukraine but also the food security of the entire world that it should return to its pre-war state as soon as possible. To some extent, Europe is very self-sufficient in cereal production, but Africa, for example, is not. That, incidentally, is why it took so long to negotiate the passage of the Ukrainian grain ships.

Ukrainian agriculture is highly intensified and is, therefore, a burden on the environment. In your opinion, is it in Ukraine's interest to restore the environment in the same agricultural form?

Primarily, the production itself must be restored. As for greening agriculture, that will be a long road that Ukraine will have to take, if only because it wants to join the European Union.

Is the quality of natural water—and, by extension, the ecosystems that depend on it currently under significant threat from the war? What about the security of water infrastructure?

These are the first things to take their toll in a war. The Russians have targeted critical infrastructure elements for the last three or four months. They're primarily targeting the power system, but they're not shying away from water resources. The destruction of a water treatment plant will, of course, make life difficult for the local population but also for an army operating there.

Another thing is that both sides (but the Russians significantly more) are using water resources for environmental warfare, i.e. flooding the territory. Just a few days ago, the Russians started to drain the dams on the Dnieper to reduce the possibility of supplying the population while making it difficult for the army to pass through. At the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian Army used the dam above Kyiv to flood a large area northeast of Kyiv to prevent the Russians from advancing from that direction.

This probably has widespread consequences for the spread of environmental contamination.

When you're fighting for survival, you don't really look too closely at whether the water you're dumping into waterways has been treated in any way. And water is usually the substance you contaminate first. So all the chemicals released during fighting seep into watercourses and contaminate them. There was a media report a few weeks ago in which Ukraine accused Russia of not complying with an international agreement to protect the water in the Azov and Black Seas because some of their military activities have led to increased contamination of coastal areas.

I am also interested in the water in the countryside, which is probably polluted in some way from the watercourses to the Black and Azov Seas. How long will it take for water quality to return to its original state?

Water has a pretty good self-cleaning capacity. Moreover, if it runs off, the problem is not so much that you don't have a sewage treatment plant running as it is that warfare leads to a vast distribution of contamination. In the Czech Republic, when a railroad truck crashes and starts leaking diesel, the fire department comes in, pours it out, and bore wells to keep the diesel out of the environment.

If we look at the documented destruction of military equipment in Ukraine (for example, on the Oryx blog), it is in the order of thousands of military vehicles. When these explode, it's not like a computer game where they flash and disappear. Metal, diesel, and lubricants are scattered into the environment; some burn, some seep into the groundwater—every piece of equipment destroyed creates a contaminated site. The contamination is spread from that site mostly by water as surface runoff into a river or the subsurface.

Contaminated live

I'm assuming the vehicles will be just one source of contamination.

Yes, there's a massive amount of destroyed industrial equipment. Military activities often occur around industrial complexes (everyone probably remembers the huge Azovstal complex in Mariupol) and are often facilities built to contain toxic substances. And when you start shooting into them, they explode, spreading contaminants through the environment.

In our country, that would be enough to declare at least a regional state of emergency, and it happens quite often in Ukraine today. Plus, of course, there is the risk of radioactive contamination because most of the nuclear power plants are located in areas directly threatened by the fighting. And although the risk of an accident is low, if it were to manifest itself, the impact would be great.

How long can the environment be contaminated like this?

If there were radioactive contamination, it would need to be seen on a case-by-case basis. A spent fuel intermediate storage explosion would have different consequences to a LOCA (loss-of-coolant-accident) in a nuclear power plant, where the reactor melts down. Such accidents would have an impact order of magnitudes greater than chemical plant accidents. The problem with chemical plants is that their mix of substances is varied, and there is no way of knowing how long the contamination may remain in the environment. They could be chemical plants making fertilisers, pesticides or lubricants. The Russians have hit the sulphuric acid industry, for example, and they are now leaking substances that will burn your lungs or burn your eyes. A lot depends on whether such places can be cleaned up after the war, which will be the next big task for Ukraine.

What do you estimate the impact of these spills on the environment and on the health of the population?

It isn't easy to say. But I would certainly highlight one thing that is visible even from satellite images: a significant deterioration in air quality. An enormous amount of materials and forests have burned and are burning in Ukraine. In addition, destroyed pieces of military equipment are burning in cities. This generates great plumes of substances you don't want to breathe. The substances range from irritants to severely toxic. Leaving aside the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons. The contamination may be massive and long-lasting.

Wartime emissions and recycled houses

We have not yet mentioned greenhouse gas emissions. Do we have an idea of the amount? I would start with the life cycle of the products of the arms industry, their subsequent transport and finally, disposal.

That sort of thing is a military secret. The production of the arms industry is, of course, as environmentally demanding as any industrial production. If you take how much energy and greenhouse gases are produced in the production of automobiles, multiply that by, say, thirty for a tank, and give or take a hit.

But then there is the transport, use and disposal of those weapons and vehicles.

Yes. Both armies (especially the Russians) consume vast amounts of fuel they wouldn't normally consume. Based on information from military blogs, for example, I estimate something in the neighbourhood of 15 million litres per day for Russia. From the start of the war to the end of the holiday season, something like 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was produced just by fuel consumption.

But much more critical are forest fires, which produce carbon several times greater than the annual production of the Czech Republic. One does not realise it, but forest cover contains vast quantities of carbon, which fire releases into the atmosphere. And I would see even more pressure on the climate in the case of destroyed infrastructure, mostly concrete and steel, two terribly energy-intensive materials.

Based on an inventory of the material of destroyed houses and infrastructure from the University of Kyiv, I estimate the production of around 200-400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide just in its production. That's maybe three times our country's production per year. The total carbon footprint is about ten times larger as of the end of September. So it's actually a third or a quarter more because the destruction of the built environment has now been reduced. However, it will rise again with the Russian offensive, which is now beginning.

How is the burden on the environment continuously monitored by the Ukrainians?

Ukrainians have an app that calculates the ecological footprint of combat vehicles. It shows that the atmospheric emissions are around 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is one-hundredth of one per cent compared to other flows. You rightly point out that production is important. And the subsequent restoration of things that have been destroyed—every kilometre of road, car or building has a carbon footprint.

Will it be possible to carry out post-war reconstruction in a more environmentally friendly way?

We are discussing with our European colleagues that we should try to make the reconstruction as environmentally friendly as possible by using recycled materials as much as possible. But when a bomb hits a house, it generates around 50-150 cubic metres of demolition waste—bricks, rubble, and home furnishings, all mixed. So it's not uniform material that you can use right away.

If some of the components are sorted out, they can be reused, and it will definitely happen and is already happening. However, the production capacity of these materials in Ukraine is not so large that destruction of this scale can be covered by production alone. And we can help Ukraine after the war to make recycling as efficient and as carbon neutral as possible. Moreover, as in the Czech Republic, houses in Ukraine often contain large amounts of asbestos, which is toxic. And when a house is destroyed, the asbestos is dispersed in the material, which is unusable. And it can contaminate the wider environment.

A new energy mix for Ukraine and Europe?

So if we accept the idea that the war is finally over, do you foresee any retreat from nuclear power, given that it may have proved to be a security risk during the war? Or will decentralisation and smaller nuclear reactors be the way to go? How do you actually see the post-war energy restructuring of Ukraine?

I am not an expert on Ukrainian energy. However, the war shows that concentrated energy sources are a potential security risk not so much because of the possibility of radioactive leakage but because the enemy only needs to disable one source to take out a large part of the system.

Reconstruction is likely to occur in this sector as well, and I think there will be more pressure on smaller, decentralised sources. But I can't say exactly whether it will be small modular nuclear reactors or renewables. Moreover, the preferred solution will solve the problem quickly. If there is not enough energy, building a new nuclear power plant is not a quick solution because it would take a decade or two. In contrast, biomass CHP units are relatively quick solutions that can be built in a few months or years—this is an asset that Ukraine will appreciate.

What is the renewable energy potential in Ukraine in terms of natural and weather conditions?

The hydropower potential there is already exhausted because where dams are possible, there are dams. In the future, I see the potential mainly in solar and wind energy. And I think that since Ukraine is a very agriculturally intensive country, the production of biogas from agricultural waste, for example, will have a more significant presence in the energy mix.

What do you see as the role of NGOs - both environmental and humanitarian - in the case of environmental restoration and Ukrainian society?

Certainly a big one, and in fact, it is already underway. In less than a month, Arnika is organising a conference with Ukrainian partners on the environmental impacts in Ukraine and what NGOs can do there. They have been active in Ukraine before. They have been helping improve air quality, for example, by changing heating regimes or waste management, which is a big problem in Ukraine.

And the flow of waste that is now being generated due to fighting would not be dealt with even by a developed country, let alone a country that entered the war with a waste management system that was not up to European Union standards. There is scope for knowledge sharing, training, etc. And I think that the international community will approach this reconstruction in much the same way as, for example, in the case of Yugoslavia. But, as they say, we are quartering a bear that is not even running in the woods yet. He is still running on the battlefield, and he is biting a lot.

How does conflict affect global climate agreements?

Positively, in the sense that the Western world is beginning to transform much faster than it needs to. Negatively in the sense that the will for international agreements is declining. The international cooperation and collaboration on which the agreements are based are disappearing. And not only because of Russia but also because of its partners who support it for various reasons.

For example, the Global Environmental Assessment report is being prepared. Russia is blocking it in various ways, creating problems to slow down or torpedo the process. Then there is the matter that is not being addressed: environmental information has stopped flowing from Russia—from weather stations to information sharing in research and so on. The question is whether the agreement on the safe use of Antarctica and the like, for example, will continue to apply. The disruption to the international order is a huge cost that is difficult to quantify. But there is one.

The environmental damage in Ukraine will undoubtedly have a longer-term effect on society there. It will have to move; it will be exposed to chemicals. At the same time, its view of the environment and its protection is likely to change. Are there already indications of this?

Ukraine is coming up with an initiative to create an international methodology for monitoring war damage to the environment, which is something that does not exist at the moment. Such an international system could include a potential quantification of the damage and some monetisation. Ukrainians are doing this quite deliberately because they are now the party bearing the brunt of the war. It also shows that they know that environmental damage is not an externality. That it's not something that just sort of washes away—it will cost money.

Is it possible to assume that the war in Ukraine may affect Europe in terms of moving towards sustainable development?

There is no such thing as an ecological war or an environmentally friendly war. However, this war has made Europe realise that, particularly through its dependence on fossil fuel energy from Russia, it is cultivating a hostile geopolitical rival. Because of this, we are undergoing an accelerated energy transition, which at least gives us some chance of slowing down climate change.

Five years ago, everybody had a hundred reasons why it was impossible, and today we suddenly see that it is possible and that all those reasons are actually proxies. We see the solar boom and the relaxation of the limits on grid connection. Also, many people now realise that local energy has the advantage of self-sufficiency and complete or at least partial independence from the central electricity supply.

Is this just Europe?

Let's say there is another industrial revolution going on in the world at the moment. The developed countries are now dependent on liquid fuels and are switching to electromobility and renewables, and whoever succeeds first will have a substantial competitive advantage over the others. Firstly, we can generate that electricity ourselves; secondly, it is one energy carrier that allows conversion between all sorts of devices, appliances and so on. The war disrupted the inertia in the system.

Miroslav Havránek was born in 1978 in Tábor and graduated from Charles University, Faculty of Science, majoring in Environmental Protection and Creation. He has worked as a researcher and project team leader at the Centre for Environmental Issues of Charles University. There, he specialised in assessing interactions between human society and the environment, focusing on climate change, waste and energy. In recent years he has developed methods and applications of strategic planning and foresight in the environmental field. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, computers and community activities in the village, and in his sporting activities, swimming and canoeing. He is married and has two children.

Author: Barbora Vrablíková, environmental media coordinator

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