Decarbonization During and After the War: Where Ukraine Is Headed


Ukraine needs decarbonization- reducing greenhouse gas emissions — the state's goal in combatting climate change and fulfilling its respective international commitments. Meanwhile, Russia's war against Ukraine continues, with infrastructure and housing being increasingly ruined, territories being mine-studded, and natural habitats being destroyed daily. That infrastructure would need rebuilding, which means increased emissions from construction sites and the operation of new enterprises.

To learn more about planning decarbonization while the war is still raging, read this interview with Oksana Aliieva, coordinator of the Climate Change and Energy Policy Program at Heinrich Boell Foundation, Kyiv Office (Ukraine), and Anna Ackermann, board member of Ecoaction NGO and policy analyst at International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

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In July 2022, an international Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC2022) was held in Lugano (Switzerland). At the Conference, a plan for Ukraine's post-war reconstruction was presented, and the Lugano Declaration was signed. This document creates a framework for the political process that will guide Ukraine's reconstruction after the Russian Federation's aggression is over; in particular, the reconstruction plan covers the country's transition to sustainability, decreasing its emissions, and switching to renewable energy sources (RES). So where, in terms of decarbonization, should Ukraine be headed now, given the ongoing war?

Oksana Aliieva, coordinator of the Climate Change and Energy Policy Program at Heinrich Boell Foundation, Kyiv Office — Ukraine:

Currently, the recovery plan is mainly focused on economic development, GDP, and attracting investments. This is natural since there is an ongoing war in Ukraine. While decarbonization and the Green Deal are primarily mentioned in terms of integration with the EU, we have to understand that it is we who have to be mainly interested in decarbonization. It is Ukraine that has a major interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, combating climate change, and adapting to climate change — not only our partners.

The current situation resembles the trend seen in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Getting across the urgent need to combat climate change is hard when a different kind of combat is prioritized. As a climate action civil society, we had a hard time advocating why Ukraine needed its climate commitments to be more ambitious while dealing with an urge to rebuild Donbas (with such rebuilding being doomed to cause, in particular, greenhouse gas emissions).

The current discussion is different, as now we are also planning for the post-war period, and those recovery plans cover both modernizing infrastructure and building it from scratch. Therefore, there's plenty of room for including decarbonization.

When our old Soviet vacuum cleaner goes out of order for good, we do not buy yet another Soviet vacuum cleaner.

Instead, we aim for better and newer technologies available. Likewise, the post-war reconstruction should be based on the best technologies and practices available, with both elements of decarbonization and a social component, as the energy transition must be made with human rights in mind.

We are primarily looking into comprehensive ecological approaches covering the preservation of habitats and reducing plow disturbance. For instance, the soils of natural systems retain large amounts of carbon, which the root systems of fields sown with wheat are incapable of. As a result, such ecosystems are more resistant to climate change.

All the abovementioned approaches must be considered when it comes to recovery planning.

According to the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, as of February 18, 2023, 14 million square meters [150,694,745.83 square feet] were polluted with remnants and rubble from destroyed facilities and ammo, with 280,000 square meters [3,013,894.92 square feet] of soil contaminated with dangerous substances. Russia's war against Ukraine is ongoing, so there will be even more damage. Given our lack of a complete picture and baseline data, how do we plan recovery? 

Oksana Aliieva, coordinator of the Climate Change and Energy Policy Program at Heinrich Boell Foundation, Kyiv Office — Ukraine:

Of course, the war is ongoing; however, we have regained control over some of our previously seized territories that had been affected and continue suffering from continuous shelling and destruction, specifically Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions. Can we afford to wait until the war is over, or should we begin planning and rebuilding them? Do we have time to wait?

As for me, we need to be doing it now. But how do we organize it when the war is ongoing? How do we draw finances when attracting private investments is currently almost out of the question due to high-security risks and the lack of guarantees from the Government or the banks?

We are currently speaking of visionary planning for years to come. It is necessary so that we know where we are heading and so that we have answers for our international partners as to how we see our future.

At the same time, people inside the country need that, too. Every person in Ukraine has to envision their role in that recovery effort; they have to see that the country will use the current situation for a makeover, for development, so that they have prospects for a better future and have something to continue fighting for.

Visionary planning is necessary for years ahead, and it should be happening here and now. Besides, the businesses that are currently in Ukraine should be able to see prospects for themselves and view Ukraine as a place for their future investments, not some written-off place.

Anna Ackermann, board member of Ecoaction NGO and policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD):

We do not know the state that our economy and energy sector will be in when the war is over, so under current circumstances, planning ahead might look like a thankless pursuit. However, it's crucial that we do so, especially considering Ukraine's European prospects and the need for stronger energy security through the means of the energy transition. If we want to move toward decarbonization, we must clearly declare our goal to join the EU's Climate-Neutral Continent by 2050 strategy.

Speaking of long-term goals for the energy sector, for the time being, the Ministry of Energy of Ukraine is working on such a plan for 2050. Hypothetically, one could calculate the possible options for the future energy mix. To have Ukraine moving toward decarbonization, climate action, and strengthening energy security, we should indeed start with an understanding of where we are heading. All the while, we must gradually move away from constant patching and repairing the outdated and instead begin building the new, therefore thinking strategically.

It is also essential to have an extensive public discussion on what meaning the term 'decarbonization' should be charged with. We should see it as an introduction of advanced technologies in Ukraine, and an opportunity to create new jobs in new industries. Ukraine, being an integral part of a common market with the EU, is not only a supplier of raw materials but a sound manufacturer of technologies and equipment.

Officials in every key ministry should be put in charge of decarbonization, namely the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food, and the Ministry of Infrastructure. All the key Ministries must understand what they need to do to achieve the common goal.

How did the pre-full-scale-war level of discourse and discussion regarding the need for decarbonization change after said war broke out?

Oksana Aliieva, coordinator of the Climate Change and Energy Policy Program at Heinrich Boell Foundation, Kyiv Office — Ukraine:

Before the full-scale war, there had been a lot of talk of decarbonization as an essential prerequisite, particularly in terms of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. For instance, before the full-scale invasion, the energy sector was the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for 2/3 of overall emissions.

So back then, the main issue was energy transition, particularly from the economic perspective. There had been a lively discourse, with a lot of talk on how to decarbonize, what to decarbonize, and where to get the necessary funding.

After the full-scale war broke out, and especially after Mariupol was seized and many large metallurgical and other enterprises located in Donetsk and Luhansk regions were destroyed, the greenhouse emissions balance in Ukraine shifted significantly — yet again.

Russia's continued shelling of energy infrastructure, destroying half of Ukraine's power generation, has also profoundly impacted the current mix of greenhouse emission generators in the country.

As of today, it is unclear how — and in which sector —  we should plan the reduction of greenhouse emissions. We can't predict the number of emissions, as we cannot know what will survive and how it will work.

At the same time, our previous climatic goals remain at the very least relevant. There are no plans for their upward revision, while at the same time, naturally, committing to more ambitious goals and even greater reduction of greenhouse gasses emissions (considering the significant decrease in economic activity in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion, due to the exodus of people, ruining of industries, many enterprises shutting down, etc.) is now out of question.

At the same time, however, there's a war-related increase in greenhouse gas emissions: a bunch of petroleum tank farms burnt to the ground, forests destroyed, fires raging, continuous shelling and bombing… Meanwhile, we will obviously try to support whatever infrastructure we have left, namely in the energy sector, and our remaining coal or gas-fired thermal power plants, as there is no alternative at this point.

During the recovery efforts, new roads, bridges, infrastructure, plants, and housing will be built, also leading to a significant increase in greenhouse emissions. Therefore, it is crucial that we already have that discussion that the recovery efforts should be aligned with the principles and priorities of decarbonization. Of all the possible technologies, we should opt for those most climate-friendly.

According to the Ministry of Environment, the total cost of damages to the Ukrainian environment caused by Russia was equivalent to UAH 1,373 billion [~USD 37,334,712,110] as of February 2023, with some ecosystems being utterly destroyed due to Russian aggression. That, too, should find reflection in the recovery plans.

As of late November 2022, 30% of Ukraine's territory was mine-studded (according to the State Emergency Service of Ukraine), including forests, cities, and fields. Those landmines are stumbled upon by both people and animals, besides, the explosives pollute soil and water. Those areas need to recover, and that recovery is several decades away.

Given the amount of destruction that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, it is obvious that post-war recovery will imply scale construction projects, rebuilding infrastructure, etc. Which means the urgent need for economic growth. How is that compatible with comprehensive decarbonization?

Oksana Aliieva, coordinator of the Climate Change and Energy Policy Program at Heinrich Boell Foundation, Kyiv Office — Ukraine:

I say economic growth is perfectly achievable under the conditions of decarbonization and compliance with environmental standards. Economic growth is not balanced against combatting climate change or ecologically-mindful approaches. With modern technologies, everything is possible. We in Ukraine can make this leap between the development stages, from industrialization to innovation. We can step away from the outdated Soviet infrastructure towards the new low-emissions, low-energy-consuming industries based on renewable energy.

Financing, however, remains the key issue here. As of now, Ukraine doesn't possess sufficient resources to independently restore its industrial complex and other sectors of the national economy, including the transport infrastructure. Environment-oriented technologies are available; however, they require funding.