The Vision 2030 strategy aims to make the Nordic Region the most sustainable region in the world. However, environmental pollution knows no borders. The realisation of a green Nordic Region hinges upon sustainable development in other parts of the world, and especially in nearby and neighbouring countries. At the time of writing, we are witnessing massive environmental damages in Ukraine, caused by the ongoing war with Russia.
This policy brief assesses the direct and indirect environmental damage resulting from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The aim is to provide the Nordic Council of Ministers with an understanding of the scale of the problem, the implications, and recommendations of potential support measures. The analysis reveals that due to the immediate survival priorities, the advancement of environmental protection legislation has been put on hold. The environmental consequences caused by the aggression will have long-lasting effects not only within Ukraine but also beyond its borders. Consequently, the Nordic Council of Ministers should help to address these challenges, which necessitates both the providing of immediate assistance to Ukraine as well as establishing long-term reconstruction plans aimed at the country’s infrastructure, conservation and future sustainable development. Achieving lasting peace and justice is a prerequisite for any such efforts, as it is essential to prevent the continuation or renewal of the war.
Russia’s aggression has resulted in significant damage to human lives, economic development, critical infrastructure, and the environment in Ukraine. This has placed immense pressure on individuals, communities, the economy, and the environment. The damage to key infrastructure, including energy facilities, water supply systems, transportation networks, and communication lines, has had a profound impact on essential services and the daily lives of millions of Ukrainians. This has garnered substantial attention and support from national and international organisations involved in humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts.
While the focus has primarily been on the immediate humanitarian and infrastructure needs, the environmental damage caused by the conflict has received less attention. However, its consequences are likely to extend beyond Ukraine’s borders and have long-term, negative, transboundary effects. It is therefore crucial that the Nordic Council of Ministers supports a thorough assessment of the short, medium, and long-term environmental impacts of the war. This assessment should consider the potential transboundary effects and the interconnectedness of ecosystems, which requires a comprehensive understanding of the environmental consequences of effective mitigation and future planning.
The environmental impact of the war encompasses damage to ecosystems, biodiversity, and both soil and water resources [1, 2], which are crucial for Ukrainian agriculture and, consequently, global food security. The magnitude of the damage and the subsequent need for reconstruction is substantial; however, it also presents an opportunity to rebuild in a more sustainable manner, ultimately working towards a carbon-neutral and sustainable future for Ukraine . The Nordic countries are committed to helping Ukraine in this process.
For instance, in July 2022, the Nordic Green Bank Nefco – which is owned by the Nordic countries – initiated the Green Recovery Programme for Ukraine. This programme aims to assist municipalities in the environmentally sustainable reconstruction of critical infrastructure. Such efforts align with the Nordic Council’s aspiration to contribute to positive developments in international cooperation relating to the environment and climate, including the promotion of Nordic green solutions worldwide . As the Nordic countries are committed to supporting Ukraine in its reconstruction efforts, it is crucial that we evaluate the impact of the war and plan future actions accordingly, considering the environmental consequences and the need for sustainable solutions.
Since the Revolution of Dignity and the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, Ukraine has made significant progress in addressing environmental and broader climate challenges, despite the ongoing war in the Donbas region and the occupation of Crimea. The country has adopted important strategic documents on climate policy, including an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in July 2021. The updated NDC outlines Ukraine’s commitment to integrating climate goals into all sectors of the economy: industry, agriculture, transport, buildings, energy, waste, and land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).
Furthermore, in October 2022, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine adopted the Environmental Security and Climate Change Adaptation Strategy until 2030 . This strategy represents the first comprehensive policy addressing climate change adaptation in Ukraine. Alongside the strategy, an action plan was also adopted to guide its implementation. The main objective of the strategy is to fulfil Ukraine’s obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement.
The full-scale invasion has obstructed the implementation and further development of many environmental regulations in Ukraine. Hence, reports on the Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) of emissions, which became mandatory in 2021 and were originally scheduled for submission in 2022, have now been made voluntary due to the war. This might impact the future implementation of the Emissions Trading System policy, which is an important tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the adoption of the NDC Implementation Action Plan has been postponed.
Since the start of the full-scale war, various reforms and plans have been placed on hold, with the focus shifting to the prioritisation of survival and national defence. Despite the adoption of several strategically significant documents before the war, the war has significantly impeded progress in the environmental protection agenda. This setback poses a threat to the country’s sustainable development and requires attention in the rebuilding of Ukraine. The Nordic Council of Ministers should continue its efforts in supporting Ukraine’s reforms on environmental protection and climate change.
Describing the damage
Russia has caused enormous damage to many aspects of life in Ukraine, including the environment. Some damage is direct and the result of deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure, while other damage is indirect, caused, for example, by power-supply cut-offs . The full extent of environmental damage caused by the war is still being assessed, and the long-term effects may only become apparent over time. It is crucial that the Nordic Council of Ministers supports the prompt efforts of evaluating and addressing the damage as part of the assistance provided to Ukraine. The environmental damage caused by the war includes the following.
Chemicals and other pollutants
- Bombs and rockets contain toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and TNT, which pose a significant long-term threat to both human health and the environment. The toxic elements can enter surface waters and contaminate streams, rivers, lakes, and the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov – shared by Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, and Russia.
- The detonation of bombs and rockets can release asbestos into the environment, further contributing to environmental pollution and posing health risks to both humans and wildlife.
- At least 10.5 million hectares of agricultural land in Ukraine have been contaminated with chemicals which has significant implications for the health and safety of Ukrainians and citizens of neighbouring countries, as well as global food security.
- More than 5 million hectares of agricultural land has become unusable due to mining and contamination of explosive remnants , mainly in the eastern and southern regions, which are areas of intense agricultural production. This is consequential for the livelihoods of local civilians and the global food supply.
- Russian attacks have targeted refineries resulting in the leakage of oil and other chemicals into the ground.
- Water infrastructures, including dams and water supply systems, have been targeted and are at risk of being targeted . A few cases of deliberate damage to dams have been reported . This poses a significant threat to the availability of clean water for communities and further exacerbates the ecological damage caused by the war.
- Rivers and networks of irrigation channels that are natural barriers for movement of troops have also become burial sites for military objects . The underwater decomposition of ammunition leads to the release of heavy metals and toxic explosive compounds, and also pose a potential risk to the environment and water quality .
- Electrical blackouts resulting from deliberate attacks on electricity infrastructure have increased the threat of water source pollution with mine waters due to failures in the operation of pumping equipment .
- The damage to water infrastructure in the eastern and southern parts of the country, which are areas of intense agricultural production, impacts both the livelihoods of local civilians and the global food supply .
- The war has inflicted damage upon natural habitats, including forests, rivers, and wetlands. Military actions have resulted in the destruction and, at times, complete loss of forests, leading to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and harm to wildlife populations.
- Russian troops occupied the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, increasing risks of an accident. There were additional reports of Russian forces shelling Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, causing damage to a transformer and a fire in a training building .
Flooded coal mines
- Since February 2022, mines such as Zolote and Toshkovskaya have reached critical levels of flooding . Mines like Carbonite and Gornaya are gradually being flooded due to damage to the power supply networks caused by shelling. Flooding of mines can lead to the inundation or complete flooding of large areas above the mine, including settlements and agricultural land. This flooding causes salinisation and soil degradation.
- Untreated mine water can potentially mix with groundwater, which is often used as a source of drinking water. When mine water rises to the surface, it can enter reservoirs and rivers within the Siverskyi Donets basin, which directly contribute to the main waterway of the region. The polluted water from the Siverskyi Donets can then be carried to the Sea of Azov.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers should ensure an environmental assessment of the damage and corresponding risks related to water quality, soil, and air quality is conducted in both the short-term and long-term for Ukraine and beyond. This assessment could be integrated into Nordic-Ukrainian cooperation projects involving local communities, allowing for the streamlined monitoring and evaluation of the environmental impact.
- Assessing the extent of the damage requires building local capacity to conduct such assessments. This can be achieved through training conducted in collaboration with Nordic experts and laboratories and research institutions in Ukraine. By providing training on assessment methodologies and techniques, local professionals can enhance their capabilities to effectively evaluate and monitor the environmental damage caused by the war.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers should mainstream environmental protection in the design of their plans for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers should work towards an agreement that environmental harm caused by the war should be considered in the future international trial faced by Russia. According to the Geneva Convention, it is forbidden to use methods or means of warfare that are intended to cause or may be expected to cause widespread, lasting and severe damage to the natural environment .
- It is important that economic compensation for the damage of the war includes compensation for the harm inflicted on the environment. The related costs should be borne by the Russian Federation, as they are responsible for the environmental damage caused by the war. These costs should cover various aspects, including clean-up and restoration efforts, conservation initiatives, reforestation projects, activities aimed at rehabilitating damaged ecosystems, and the restoration of water bodies. The Nordic Council of Ministers should help to design a system of resource allocation to address environmental justice and ensure the sustainable recovery and restoration of the affected areas.
- Post-war rebuilding should be carried out through a coordinated international effort, in close cooperation with Ukrainian environmental NGOs and relevant national bodies. The Nordic Council of Ministers should prioritise local ownership and adopt a demand-driven approach, ensuring that the needs and perspectives of local communities are considered. By fostering collaboration and involving key stakeholders, sustainable and effective environmental governance can be established in the aftermath of the war.
- Rebuilding should occur hand-in-hand with the improvement and further development of environmental legislation in Ukraine, with the help of the extensive experience of the Nordic countries. In any plans for Ukraine’s post-war recovery, the Nordic Council of Ministers should emphasise green economy and low-emission development principles. Post-war green reconstruction should not be viewed as a desirable and optional “good to have” strategy, but rather as an economic necessity for facilitating a fundamental transformation of Ukraine towards a green and net-zero economy.
- In the short term, Nordic support to Ukraine should focus on the elimination and reduction of immediate risks that the war poses to human health and the environment.
With their decades-long experience as forerunners in the domain of environmental protection, the Nordic countries can make a specific and unique contribution to the sustainable recovery of Ukraine, while at the same time moving closer to realising their ambitious vision of a sustainable Nordic Region.
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By Karina Shyrokykh, Yevheniia Zasiadko
Source: Fast Track to Vision 2030