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Environmental accountability, justice and reconstruction in the Russian war on Ukraine

The Ukrainian Carpathians. Photo: Muhlynin/Shutterstock
The Ukrainian Carpathians. Photo: Muhlynin/Shutterstock
Dr Jiayi Zhou and Dr Ian Anthony

Next month will mark one year since Russia began its full-scale war on Ukraine. This large-scale land invasion has had repercussions across the geopolitical, humanitarian, financial, and even food and energy domains. It has also had devastating ecological impacts.

Measurable environmental damage—valued by Ukrainian authorities at an estimated US$46 billion and still rising—includes direct war damage to air, forests, soil and water; remnants and pollution from the use of weapons and military equipment; and contamination from the shelling of thousands of facilities holding toxic and hazardous materials. The longer-term costs for Ukraine with regard to lost ecosystem services are much harder to quantify. On top of this, the war effort has directed government attention and resources away from environmental governance and climate action, posing additional risks for national, regional and global sustainable development.

However, as this SIPRI Topical Backgrounder sets out, Ukrainian authorities, civil society and international partners are responding vigorously to these challenges, not only by drawing attention to the ecological impacts of the war but also by recording and measuring those impacts, pursuing accountability and restitution, and laying the groundwork for a green reconstruction. All this dovetails with efforts already under way to strengthen the international normative and legal framework for the protection of the environment in the context of armed conflict.

As well as benefiting Ukraine itself, all this could set positive precedents for and strengthen international mechanisms to account for, remediate and perhaps even prevent environmental crimes and damage related to armed conflict. Hence, although the war appears to have its origins in the most rigid of traditional, state-centric and zero-sum considerations, its fallout may help to propagate a more integrated and holistic understanding of security, and the consideration and protection of the shared natural environment in all phases of the conflict cycle.

The environment as a casualty of the war

The environmental impacts and risks associated with the war in Ukraine include, but also go far beyond, direct physical damage to and contamination of natural habitats from, for example, munitions, materiel and troop movements. Another set of risks is posed by pollution from industrial facilities and infrastructure that are damaged or cannot be properly managed due to the fighting. Ukraine’s industrial base includes many mines, chemical plants and factories that hold potentially hazardous substances. These, along with infrastructure including nuclear power stations, have frequently been incidentally damaged or even deliberately targeted during a conflict that has been active in Ukraine’s east since 2014. Russia has also been accused of deliberately targeting hydropower dams in order to cause flooding since the earliest days of the war. According to one estimate, there were more than 1100 incidents of disruption to or destruction of industrial facilities and critical infrastructure in Ukraine between February and December 2022.

The implications of damage and toxic contamination from fighting are especially grave given that Ukraine is home to 35 per cent of Europe’s biodiversity and around a quarter of the earth’s chernozem, a rich, highly fertile soil type. Hundreds of protected areas are or have been under occupation, including up to 23 national parks and nature and biosphere reserves. There has also been considerable attention paid to the war’s large carbon footprint, as is discussed below.

The ecological consequences of conflict have periodically come into focus in the past, particularly in relation to the Second Indochina War and the first Gulf War. Even so, the war in Ukraine stands out in terms of the amount of attention being given to ecological damage during an ongoing conflict. Shortly after the February 2022 invasion, international civil society groups raised the issue at the United Nations Environment Assembly. This was quickly followed by a high-profile open letter signed by hundreds of scholars, peacebuilders and organizations and a joint statement from an international alliance of parliamentarians, both condemning the environmental damage and risks caused by military activity.

The Ukrainian government has been proactive in highlighting the environment as a key casualty of Russian aggression. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeals to international partners regularly refer to the environmental dimensions of the conflict. This includes recent speeches at the COP27 climate summit in November 2022 and at the G20 summit a week later, where protection of the environment featured as one element of Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan.

Recording and assessing the environmental damage

Another reason for the degree of international attention on the environmental dimensions of the war is certainly the ‘unprecedented’ volume of data that has been gathered and made publicly available by Ukrainian authorities, society and international partners. Open-source data collection, including by a range of civil society actors and citizen scientists, has played a particularly important role in this. Several online platforms present data on environmental damage and risks due to the war, and some, such as SaveEcoBot, allow users to report instances of environmental damage or suspected environmental crime.

The Ecodozor platform—developed by the Zoï Environment Network, together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the REACH Humanitarian Initiative—recorded over 29 000 reported cases of ‘damage or disruption due to military activities’ between February and December 2022, affecting critical infrastructure, industrial facilities, farmland and settlements. Locally based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as EcoAction and Environment People Law are also at the frontlines of this data collection, complementing efforts by Ukrainian authorities.

As of 18 January 2023, the Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources’ EcoZagroza platform claimed to have verified 2215 reports of alleged environmental crimes by ‘occupiers of the Russian Federation’ since the start of the conflict, based on the work of more than 16 000 Ukrainian citizens, along with ecological experts, NGOs and others. EcoZagroza also gives estimates of the damage due to these alleged environmental crimes calculated by the State Environmental Inspectorate, expressed in Ukraine’s hryvnia currency.

There is currently no international standard for measuring ecological damage from conflict. However, since the February 2022 invasion the Ukrainian environment ministry has been developing methodologies for determining damage and losses in the areas of land, water, air, forest, subsoil resources and nature reserves, and continues to refine them. This approach—focused as it is on quantifying damage in discrete sectors—is a rough indicator that does not fully capture the complexity of ecosystems and the non-tangible services they provide, including in terms of cultural value and heritage. Nevertheless, it has benefited Ukraine’s environmental messaging around the war, drawing attention to the scale of environmental destruction. In addition, it helps to underpin calls for accountability and justice.

The war in Ukraine has also resulted in the first emissions estimate for an active conflict: 97 million tCO2e of war-related greenhouse gas emissions between February and September 2022, with around half linked to the future repair or replacement of civilian infrastructure damaged by the war. All of the work to develop these assessment methodologies that has been prompted by the war may eventually have much wider international applicability, or at least help to unify current approaches.

The pursuit of accountability, justice and reparations

Several avenues are being explored by Ukraine and its international partners for ensuring that Russia is held to account, sanctioned and made to compensate Ukraine for the consequences of its aggression. Since 2001 the Ukrainian criminal code has included the crime of ecocide, defined as the ‘mass destruction of flora and fauna, poisoning of air or water resources, and also any other actions that may cause an environmental disaster’, punishable by imprisonment.

In the hope of bringing a degree of accountability for Russia that reflects the scale of the destruction, as well as seeking commensurate levels of compensation, Ukrainian and other legal experts have also been considering how a case could be brought at the international level. The International Criminal Court does not currently recognize ecocide as an international crime under the Rome Statute, although there is growing pressure in that direction. International humanitarian law does prohibit the employment of ‘methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment’. However, the lack of specific thresholds for these criteria makes it difficult to build cases using this provision.

Ukraine also has a clear goal of making Russia pay reparations, including for environmental damage due to the war. This has been a consistent feature of Ukrainian preconditions for entering peace negotiations with Russia. Avenues for extracting reparations seem to be opening up through seized Russian assets in specific national contexts.

There is also precedent for compensation mechanisms at the international level. In 1991 the UN Security Council established a Compensation Commission that bound Iraq to pay reparations for damage during its invasion of Kuwait, including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources. Russia’s veto power in the Security Council effectively rules this option out in the case of the present war. However, in November 2022 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution ES-11/5 ‘Furtherance of remedy and reparation for aggression against Ukraine’. The resolution recommends the creation of an international register of ‘evidence and claims information on damage, loss or injury to all natural and legal persons concerned, as well as the state of Ukraine’. While the register does not itself create a mechanism for reparations, it coordinates evidence gathering in that direction and helps to promote justice and accountability.

The war in Ukraine comes at a time when work is under way to develop a more robust international normative and legal framework for the protection of the environment in armed conflict. In 2020 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released updated guidelines on the protection of the natural environment in armed conflict, to clarify existing rules and promote their application. In December 2022 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that included 27 principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict (PERAC), which had been developed by the International Law Commission. Other resolutions on the topic were adopted in the UN Environment Assembly in 2016 and 2017. The 2016 resolution, ‘Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict’, was tabled by Ukraine.

Although in some cases they reflect binding treaty law, both the ICRC guidelines and the PERAC principles are dependent on voluntary state implementation. They also, of course, cannot reduce the harm already inflicted on Ukraine’s natural environment. However, they still provide reference points to help to identify and characterize the environmental damage inflicted by Russia, and to build a stronger case for restitution. Whether bids to sanction Russian individuals or the Russian state ultimately succeed, Ukrainian efforts nonetheless serve to strengthen the normative grounds and help to clarify the legal avenues for environmental justice and accountability in the context of armed conflict.   

Prospects for green reconstruction

Another environmental dimension to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that it has set back, and in some cases reversed, Ukraine’s pre-war efforts towards environmental reform and green transition. Ukraine has long been one of the world’s most energy-intensive economies, with outdated infrastructure and low energy efficiency—a fact that was even acknowledged in Ukraine’s 2020 National Security Strategy as a matter of strategic concern. The war has threatened progress Ukraine was making in these areas, including towards its goal of increasing the share of renewables in the national energy mix to 12 per cent by 2025. Russia has reportedly destroyed much of Ukraine’s renewable energy infrastructure, which is concentrated in occupied areas or zones of active conflict. Of course there are now more immediate concerns related to the deliberate attacks by Russian forces on critical energy infrastructure in Ukraine, which have deprived residents of heat, power, water and other basic services in the depths of winter.

In other respects, however, the war may serve to accelerate the green transition in and beyond Ukraine. Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction is likely to see some of the most emissions-intensive and polluting assets that have been destroyed, particularly in heavy industry, replaced with greener alternatives. Clear imperatives for decarbonization come from not only the obvious need to achieve greater energy security and independence, but also the requirements for accession to the European Union, following Ukraine’s acceptance as a candidate state in June 2022.

Both Ukraine and its likely partners have committed to building the country back ‘better’, and greener, than previously. The outcome document of the Ukraine Recovery Conference held in Lugano, Switzerland, in July 2022 incorporates sustainability as one of seven core principles for rebuilding, and commits to alignment with the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a green transition more broadly. Ukraine’s current draft recovery plan for the energy sector includes decarbonization, modernization and increasing energy efficiency as core tasks. Updating the housing stock and infrastructure represents the best and fastest route to improving energy efficiency, and indeed this constitutes one of the main components of the draft recovery plan. It is also the focus of the Eastern Europe Energy Efficiency and Environment Partnership (E5P), a multi-donor fund that has earmarked €175 million for Ukraine.

Further challenges and reflections

International recognition of the key role of a healthy environment in sustaining peace and human security has never been greater. The war in Ukraine has only driven the point home more forcefully. Nevertheless, the eventual success of the efforts outlined above—in protecting Ukraine’s natural environment and supporting the green transition, and in holding Russia to account—depend on many factors.

Not the least of these, the environmental damage and risks continue to grow with each day of the war. Public resources and priorities have already shifted from environmental conservation, governance and monitoring towards war efforts, and many scientific personnel have left the country or joined the fighting.

In addition, although the amount of data already gathered is impressive, war conditions and the Russian occupation of large swathes of Ukraine make full monitoring and assessment extremely difficult. The collected data will also need careful independent verification, attribution and matching against baselines that may not be available, especially if it is to be used in legal cases, domestically or internationally, or to demand compensation.

Holding Russia to account for the enormous and growing environmental damage caused by the war will be tremendously challenging. There are currently no viable international legal avenues for seeking reparations and, perhaps more importantly, no willingness on Russia’s side to consider these demands, even as part of negotiations.

Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction will come at a high financial cost, and even if it results in a greener Ukrainian economy in the long run will also have a carbon footprint of its own. Furthermore, to create the conditions for recovery, it will be necessary to mitigate the risks posed by toxic and hazardous materials, such as rocket fuel, as well as the explosive remnants of war, such as unexploded ordnance and landmines. External actors such as the Halo Trust have expanded their activities in Ukraine in order to assist, but it will still be difficult when Ukrainian resources are stretched thin. Arrangements for financing, capacity building, coordination and governance for reconstruction projects remain to be worked out—and ambitions for turning Ukraine into a green and clean energy hub are largely declarative for now.

Nevertheless, the efforts of Ukraine’s authorities and citizens are invaluable in setting precedents and serving as a positive example of how to understand and respond to environmental damage in armed conflict. In previous cases such as the first Gulf War and the second Indochina War, large-scale environmental destruction has led to the creation of new international mechanisms and even treaties geared towards prevention. The war in Ukraine could perhaps serve as another such watershed moment in international security governance—even if those changes come too late to remedy the impacts that Ukraine has already suffered.

 

The authors offer their sincere thanks to the participants in the recent SIPRI event ‘Beyond War Ecologies: Green Ways Forward for Ukraine’, whose insights inform this topical backgrounder.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Dr Jiayi Zhou is a Researcher in the Conflict, Peace and Security research area at SIPRI.
Dr Ian Anthony is the Director of the European Security Programme.