This story was originally published by Wired and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a heavily industrialized Ukraine has made headway in protecting its natural resources. Over 270 sites now make up its Emerald Network of protected conservation zones, accounting for 10 per cent of the country, and tree-felling restrictions have helped preserve the unique plants and animals that call those areas home.
Even in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, still laced with radiation from the 1986 nuclear disaster, populations of bears and wolves have returned and flourished. Ukraine remains industrial, and many of its cities are choked by pollution, but before Russia’s invasion, it had been getting greener too.
“But it is clear that the war erases all this because no one can protect the protected areas,” says biologist Oleksiy Vasyliuk, head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group. With each exploding missile, mortar or tank, toxic chemicals and shrapnel corrupt an environment the country has been working hard to safeguard. “And unfortunately, nothing can be done about it — it will simply be a huge pollution of the territory,” he says. “Dozens of the largest industrial cities have essentially become completely rubbish.”
Often forgotten in the context of war, the environmental costs of the invasion have received an unusual amount of attention since it began eight months ago. That’s in part due to an unprecedented amount of data coming out of the country in the form of social media reports, remote monitoring and satellite imagery, says Doug Weir, research director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, which has been monitoring the situation from the U.K. It’s also due to the attention of the Ukrainian government, which says it aims to hold Russia accountable for the massive ecological price tag.
While Vasyliuk’s Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and other organizations are still taking stock of the damage on the ground, the government recently tallied the bill to $34 billion. Next month, it plans to present a framework at the UN Climate Conference in Egypt that will outline its rationale for how its damaged ecosystems and poisoned air, soil, and waterways translate into specific costs that Russia should cover — though it is far from clear how it would be made to pay.
Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine’s environment has manifested in ways both obvious and hidden. Explosions fling toxic munitions into the air, soil and water. But that also pulverizes the built environment — concrete, pipes, wiring, everything you’d keep in a home — further adding toxicants to the surroundings. Attacks on chemical plants, wastewater treatment facilities and energy infrastructure release particularly nasty pollutants. “There were 36 chemical plants in Severodonetsk alone,” says Vasyliuk, referring to a city in the heart of the Luhansk region, which has seen extensive fighting. “They are all destroyed, and it most likely led to the pollution of the [Siverskyi Donets] river.”
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Blown-up tanks and other vehicles leak oil and diesel. Fires aerosolize pollutants, propelling chemicals and particulate matter into the atmosphere, which then falls as a kind of toxic snow. Battles also spark forest fires, which chew through previously protected areas: 250,000 acres have burned in Ukraine so far, Vasyliuk says.
The contamination of groundwater is uniquely insidious. Wind does a good job of blowing air pollution out of a given area, but if chemicals seep underground, they tend to stay there much longer, says Nickolaï Denisov, deputy director of the Zoï Environment Network, which has long monitored Ukraine. “It's a much more stable environment,” says Denisov. “Once it's polluted, it's polluted. And it may take a very, very long time — many years — for groundwater to get rid of pollution.”
Wartime contamination is happening indirectly as well, Denisov says. During normal operations, coal mines in Donbas, for instance, have to pump water out to keep from flooding. But when the war interrupted that, rising water levels corrupted local stocks of groundwater. That’s not to mention the extensive damage to water infrastructure itself, which has cut off supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
Less obviously, the war has put pressure on the government to reverse some of the past years’ environmental gains. Ukrainians have to search for other ways to heat their homes when the gas goes off, increasing the scale of logging, Vasyliuk says. The trees that aren’t incinerated during battles are chopped down for fuel. This spring, the government suspended public access to certain types of logging data and cancelled the so-called “silent season,” when loggers are forbidden from cutting during the birthing period for forest animals. Both votes, which had long been sought by forestry groups, were passed over the protests of environmental groups.
“Our state is trying to simplify access to natural resources as much as possible, and this is bad news,” Vasyliuk says. “We cannot stop it.”
When the time for reconstruction does come, Vasyliuk hopes to see a reversal that would add more land to the country’s protected areas. The war has already made vast areas of valuable farmland unusable because they are now laced with heavy-metal pollution and strewn with unexploded bombs — but those areas could be added to Ukraine’s protected Emerald Network, Vasyliuk suggests. He points to the success of rewilding in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. “If nature is left alone, it will recover,” he says.
It remains to be seen how the government’s current attention to environmental damage will translate into reconstruction. Weir points to the current status of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a massive industrial facility outside the heavily contested city of Mariupol. Before the war, the plant was the focus of environmental organizations that were hoping to clean up the air in the nearby city, which is one of the most polluted in Europe. Some officials have suggested the damage and disruption of the war could bring about new, cleaner technology or a downsizing of operations.
But the fate of the facility hangs on the wider conflict and the messy local politics of rebuilding. Perhaps Ukraine will hold the area, in which case there will be the same old tussle over cleaning up the plant versus preserving the thousands of jobs there. “It’s easy to say things to the media, but the reality is it's going to be political,” says Weir. And what if Russia holds that terrain? “Is Russia going to invest the amount of money that’s going to be needed in these areas? I don’t know,” he says. “It’s going to be a massive problem to deal with.”
One thing that could nudge Ukraine toward continued environmental reform is the country’s ambition to join the European Union, which requires adherence to the bloc’s environmental laws as a prerequisite for admission. But funding that transition will be a challenge regardless of the political situation when the war ends. Initially, there was momentum toward holding Russia accountable for the costs, including environmental damage. That would potentially be a task for the UN General Assembly, which could pass a resolution to freeze and repurpose Russian funds held abroad. But despite Ukraine’s calls for reparations, that momentum appears to have waned amongst its allies, Weir says, as some countries like the U.S. seem to recognize the precedent such an action would set.
That money can come from other sources — from international environmental groups or from the European Union — which is now considering how to help repair the country. “There are talks about this kind of Marshall Plan for Ukraine,” says Krzysztof Michalak, senior program manager at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which has been monitoring the environmental situation. “There is a plan for a reconstruction fund, so a big pot of money.”
The question will be what to prioritize. Ukraine’s water, energy, and transportation systems are all in shambles and urgently need fixing for the sake of the people. And a postwar rollout of renewable energy needs to avoid potential downsides. For example, hydroelectric dams significantly disrupt river ecosystems. And you wouldn’t want to install solar panels or wind turbines in a way that necessitates cutting down even more trees. As one potential solution, Vasyliuk suggests prioritizing solar energy farming in contaminated areas.
But as the price of deploying renewable power drops, rebuilding a green Ukrainian economy is more feasible than ever. “Reconstructing green is still a good investment,” says Michalak. “It’s not as expensive as it looks.”