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The Climate 202

War in Ukraine poses environmental risk now and in the future, advocates say

The Climate 202

Good morning! This is Vanessa Montalbano, the Climate 202 researcher, writing the top of the newsletter today. Below, a pipeline leak in Texas is estimated to have the same climate impact as the annual emissions of 16,000 cars. But first: 

War in Ukraine poses environmental risk now and in the future, advocates say

As Russian forces bombard communities across Ukraine, the nation’s once-vibrant ecosystems are becoming scorched and scarred, rewinding decades of conservation work, according to Ukrainian climate advocates.

Svitlana Romanko, a Ukrainian climate justice activist and former environmental law professor, told The Climate 202 that the consequences of the damage on the environment and biodiversity after the war will be felt for years to come. 

“Ukraine has been severely damaged and destroyed and there are cities that don’t even exist anymore,” Romanko said. “Every night the missiles and bombs are still flying through the territory of Ukraine, so these are natural disasters as well.” 

Nearly one-third of the country’s protected waters and lands have been occupied by Russian forces, leaving both the Ukrainian government and environmentalists in the dark about climate risks or how the land might have been harmed. 

“We’re reluctant to collect [climate impact data] now, and it’s kind of hard to do it because of the war. All information is closed,” said Evgenia Zasyadko, climate policy coordinator for Ecoaction, a Ukrainian environmental advocacy organization. “We don’t know what’s going on there.” 

Of particular concern, Zasyadko said, is the eastern part of Ukraine, which is home to industrial infrastructure including oil depots, coal mines and nuclear power plants. Without human regulation, each site could potentially spill fuel and leak toxic, planet-warming pollutants into villages, the water supply and the atmosphere. 

According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy and Environment Protection, more than 1,500 Russian missiles have been launched at Ukraine thus far, with more than 5,000 units of various Russian military equipment being destroyed — all also spewing unmonitored amounts of chemicals and greenhouse gasses into the air and soil. 

A ‘fossil-fueled war’ 

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been an unlikely turning point for climate activism, advocates on the ground say that eliminating fossil fuel use could reduce devastating climate outcomes, while also disrupting Russia's oil-dominant economy.

Romanko argues that without its fossil fuel industry, Russia wouldn’t be able to fund the war in Ukraine, adding that much of Russia’s wealth and power comes from its oil and gas exports. 

“This is about energy security, climate crisis and war in Ukraine having the same roots and hence the same solution,” she said. “It’s about justice. I truly want to end the war in my country. We have had enough of fossil-fueled wars and climate-hostile wars.” 

Oleg Savitsky, an energy and policy expert at the Ukrainian Climate Network, agreed with Romanko, adding that Russia should be removed from all international groups as a consequence for disrupting peace and committing acts of terrorism both on civilians and on the environment as a method of war. 

This act would directly affect Russia’s fossil fuel shipments, according to Savitsky, which he said allows the Kremlin to build its “war machine.”

The Ukrainian Climate Network plans to call on the United Nations at the Stockholm +50 meeting in June about their Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to produce an international response to end expansion of new fossil fuel production, phase out existing production and enable a globally just transition to low emissions energy systems. 

The meeting, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first-ever international summit on the environment, is a unique opportunity to initiate a globally coordinated effort to combine warming goals with climate justice, requiring wealthy countries to provide financing and technology to developing nations like Ukraine, Savitsky said. 

“I think we are now at the breaking point for a global trajectory of energy and climate policy and everything depends basically on the response to the war,” he said. 

“Climate policy is set to fail if we don’t address the core issue, which is fossil fuel extraction.” 

What's next for Ukraine

In a combined effort with the Ministry, Zasyadko said she has counted at least 139 instances of what she referred to as “environmental war crimes” committed by Russia during the invasion, each of which she hopes the country will be charged with and mandated to pay for by the International Criminal Court. 

“The number very likely could be much more,” Zasyadko said. “The real evaluation could only happen when Russia leaves the Ukrainian territory and we can go in and evaluate what kind of harm actually this brought to us.” 

According to the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, a war crime includes launching an attack while knowing that it would cause loss of civilian life or “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”

Romanko noted that it is extremely difficult to prove an environmental crime before the court because you need to have proof of causal connection along with documented damage for determining reimbursement. But, she added, it’s doable. 

She said the monitoring Zasyadko and the Ministry are doing is essential to determining what the financial responsibility or punishment should be for environmental crimes down the line.

In terms of reconstruction in Ukraine after the war, Savitsky said a “green Marshall Plan,” similar to what was enacted after World War II, should be internationally adopted to accelerate the clean energy transition in Ukraine while also reckoning with layers of societal upheaval caused by war. 

During recovery after the war, Savitsky said, it would be easy to rely again on fossil fuels to restore buildings, agriculture and industry, but that would ignore climate goals. 

“We’ll need a complete overhaul of Ukraine’s economy, which is very energy intensive and oriented on production of raw materials,” Savitsky said. “Ukraine needs to become a new industrial and renewable energy hub for Europe but based on clean technologies.” 

“This requires the scale of investment only compared to reconstruction of Europe after World War II, so we really need a green Marshall Plan for Ukraine,” he said. 

Pressure points

Unregulated Texas pipeline leaks massive amount of methane

In a little more than an hour, a natural gas pipeline in Texas leaked enough methane that by one estimate found its climate impact equivalent to the annual emissions of about 16,000 cars, Bloomberg's Aaron Clark and Naureen S. Malik report.

The pipeline was a small part of a vast network of unregulated pipelines — known as gathering lines — that connect production fields and other sites to larger transmission lines across the United States.

The incident, which occurred on March 17, highlights that even tiny parts of this network can have major climate impact. It comes as new federal reporting requirements for gathering lines are set to take effect next month.

Energy Transfer LP, which operates the line through its ETC Texas Pipeline Ltd. unit, said an investigation into the cause of the leak is ongoing. The company added that it had notified all appropriate regulatory agencies.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide but is roughly 80 times more effective at trapping heat during its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Climate in the courts

Court declines to review certificate issue involving Mo. pipeline

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a lower court's decision to scrap a federal certificate for the already-built Spire STL Pipeline in Missouri, Bloomberg Law's Maya Earls reports

Spire STL Pipeline and Spire Missouri had asked the justices to intervene after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit tossed out the certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ruling that the commission had failed to show that there was a need for the project. 

Homes and businesses in the St. Louis area could suffer natural gas outages without the project, the companies had warned the Supreme Court.

Scott Smith, president of the pipeline, said in a statement that while he was "disappointed" in the justices' decision, the project will continue to operate under the temporary certificate that the commission issued in December.

Extreme events

Hundreds dead and dozens missing after flooding in South Africa

More than 440 people are dead and dozens are missing after torrential rainfall triggered severe floods across eastern South Africa, Danielle Paquette, the Washington Post's West Africa bureau chief, writes in a photo essay showing the devastation.

When South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the hardest-hit areas last week, he blamed the flood on climate change. Scientists warn that extreme storms will become more frequent as the world warms.

International climate

Audit of logging in Congo raises concerns about forest protection deal

A report on logging in the Democratic Republic of Congo is sparking concern among environmentalists about a $500 million forest protection deal announced at the United Nations climate summit last fall, the Guardian's Patrick Greenfield and Fiona Harvey report.

The long-awaited report, released this month by Congo's government, found that six successive ministers illegally granted logging companies permission to fell trees 18 times, violating a 20-year moratorium on new logging in the second-largest rainforest on Earth.

The audit comes after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi signed an agreement at the summit, known as COP26, committing $500 million to protect significant forests and peatlands, including $260 million to preserve the Congo basin.

A Washington Post investigation previously found that Congo is home to the largest swath of tropical peatland on the planet, and that disturbing this peatland could release a massive “carbon bomb” into the atmosphere.

In the atmosphere

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