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Russia's war on Ukraine causing climate devastation, study finds

A study estimates the world's armed forces have a combined carbon footprint equal to 5.5% of global greenhouse gases.

Military-caused carbon emissions harm Ukraine's climate
Military-caused carbon emissions harm Ukraine's climate (AN/Hristo Sahatchiev/Unsplash

Russia's war in Ukraine is unleashing a cascade of environmental destruction that will exacerbate the global climate crisis for decades to come, according to a comprehensive new study.

Twenty-four months into Russia's full-scale invasion, the war has generated greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 175 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — more than the total annual emissions of a highly industrialized nation like the Netherlands, the study released on Thursday found.

Setting the social cost of carbon at US$185 per ton, an estimate drawn from recent peer-reviewed research, the authors calculated that Russia has inflicted over US$32 billion in climate damages in two years of war.

"The Russian Federation can be held accountable for these emissions and the resulting damage to the global climate as, without its act of aggression, these GHG emissions would not have happened," says the report funded by Germany, Sweden and the European Climate Foundation.

The report is the fourth update of an ongoing assessment published by a network of scientists, the Initiative on GHG Accounting of War. It is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the climate impacts of Russia's invasion.

The researchers relied on government data, expert interviews, satellite imagery and open source intelligence to generate their estimates, which they characterize as conservative.

"Mapping carbon emissions of a major conflict has never been done before, let alone of an ongoing conflict," the authors said. "A methodology is emerging as we are working."

The war's emissions fall into five major categories: direct emissions from warfare like fuel consumption and ammunition; fires ignited by shelling and military activity; damage to energy infrastructure; emissions from refugees and internally displaced people fleeing the conflict; and future emissions from rebuilding destroyed infrastructure.

Warfare itself is currently the biggest emissions source, accounting for the equivalent of over 51 million tons of CO2 — a figure that has steadily risen as the conflict rages on.

Russian attacks on Ukraine's power grid have led to substantial leaks of sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6, a highly potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 23,000 times greater than CO2. The gas is used as an electrical insulator in power plants and stations.

The environmental impact of attacks on energy infrastructure included in the report extends beyond Ukraine's power grid to the sabotaged Nord Stream natural gas pipelines. The report cites the leaks as the largest methane release ever recorded, with worst-case estimates from the Danish Energy Agency reaching 14.6 million tons of CO2.

European and media investigations suggest Ukraine is responsible for sabotaging the pipelines, aided by Poland.  Altogether, energy infrastructure attacks have generated 17.2 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.

The war has also crippled Ukrainian land management authorities and firefighters, leaving them unable to control the landscape fires that ignite on both sides of the frontlines.

Artillery shelling has lit blazes that have devoured forests and fields, releasing an additional 22.9 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroying Ukraine’s natural carbon sinks.

Refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing the violence generated another 3.27 million tons of transport emissions, while detours around closed airspaces forced planes to burn an extra 24 million tons of fuel.

"Now, after two years of war, the largest share of emissions originate from a combination of warfare, landscape fires and the damage to energy infrastructure," the report states.

The war's total climate footprint is akin to "putting 90 million new petrol cars on the road, or building 260 coal-fired power units."

But the biggest long-term environmental impact from the war will only materialize on ‘the day after’, when violence subsides. Rebuilding Ukraine's shattered cities and towns is projected to emit at least 56 million tons of CO2 from carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel. That figure continues to rise as fighting grinds on.

The report's findings will be added to the official record of war damages kept by the Council of Europe. European leaders have framed the "register of damage" – which documents the financial toll of all Russian military actions in Ukraine – as a step toward eventually seeking reparations from Russia, likely via the over US$200 billion in Russian assets frozen inside the bloc.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen estimated this week that rebuilding Ukraine will cost at least €500 billion.

Military carbon footprint is massive – even in peacetime 

The scale of destruction in Ukraine has focused global attention on the environmental toll of war. But the IGGAW report adds to a growing body of research showing that militaries are major contributors to climate change – even in peacetime.

A study published last year by Scientists for Global Responsibility estimates that the world's armed forces have a combined carbon footprint equal to 5.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the planet's militaries were a country, they would have the fourth-largest national carbon footprint, exceeding that of Russia.

"This emphasises the urgent need for concerted action to be taken both to robustly measure military emissions and to reduce the related carbon footprint," the authors wrote, warning that militaries' impact is "very likely to be growing in the wake of the war in Ukraine."

Last week, a study published by the Social Science Research Network shed light on the environmental impact of another ongoing conflict: Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

With nearly 75% of the enclave reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes, the carbon emission cost of rebuilding Gaza will surpass the greenhouse gas emissions of 135 countries, the report revealed.

Researchers estimated that reconstructing over 200,000 buildings, including houses, schools, hospitals, and civilian infrastructure, will emit as much carbon as the annual emissions of countries like Sweden or Portugal.

Yet the carbon emissions of wars and militaries have long remained in the shadows. U.S. lobbying efforts, which have also benefited other major military powers like China and Russia, have resulted in military activities being exempted from landmark U.N. climate agreements.

The Kyoto Protocol, the first international treaty to set legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, contained no requirements for military emissions reporting. The 2015 Paris Agreement makes armed forces emissions reporting optional.

The U.S. Department of Defense has become by far the world's largest single institutional consumer of fossil fuels. A 2023 report found the United States and United Kingdom armed forces emitted at least 430 million tons of CO2 since the Paris accord was signed — more than the U.K.'s total emissions in 2022. Ninety per cent of those emissions were attributed to the U.S. military.

It estimated the social cost of U.S. and UK military emissions since 2015 at a minimum of US$111 billion, arguing the nations should pay that sum as climate reparations to vulnerable countries – the same argument made by the E.U. in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The impact of the U.S. and U.K. militaries and their more than 900 offshore bases goes beyond carbon emissions, causing severe damage to biodiversity and polluting the environment of the nations where they are based, including some small islands.

Experts say the true emissions figures are likely far higher, as militaries disclose scant emissions data. Much defense spending flows to private contractors like Lockheed Martin, supporting vast carbon-intensive manufacturing.

Cutting militaries' carbon footprint while maintaining readiness also poses major technical challenges. Electrifying the U.S. military's combat fleet of tanks, armored vehicles, fighter jets and helicopters, for example, would require revolutionary improvements in battery technology. Meanwhile, sustainable fuels remain prohibitively expensive for most military uses.

Some militaries have begun – on paper – to address their climate impact. The Pentagon has pledged to halve its installation emissions by 2032. NATO established a 2022 policy calling on members to voluntarily track and report defense emissions.

But experts say far more is needed, starting with standardizing accounting across nations and making military emissions reporting mandatory.  No country currently reports its numbers to the U.N.

"The stark fact is that at present global military emissions are not being officially counted," the 2022 report concluded. "We urgently need militaries worldwide to put in place robust, transparent emissions reduction strategies as part of a more general transformation of our economies."

As global temperature records break month after month and the global threats of climate change escalate, the growing evidence of war's environmental impact underscore a harsh reality: In an increasingly climate-ravaged world, war has become an unaffordable luxury.