Massive environmental damage: War and climate: How military conflicts are affecting our planet

During the nine months of the war in Ukraine, Moscow has not only reduced concrete, stone and asphalt to rubble.

Massive environmental damage: War and climate: How military conflicts are affecting our planet

During the nine months of the war in Ukraine, Moscow has not only reduced concrete, stone and asphalt to rubble. Little noticed by the public, but at least as affected are Ukrainian forests, rivers, nature reserves. The Russian war of aggression burned vast hectares of forest, President Volodymyr Zelenskyj recently complained. At least 50,000 dolphins died in the Black Sea because of the altercation. And in the Donbass, millions of hectares of soil have been contaminated with harmful substances because the coal mines have been flooded.

The climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, offered Selenskyj the opportunity to make the issue politically heard. In a video message to summit participants, Zelenskyy said the earth "can't afford a single shot." And without peace, an effective climate policy is impossible, he appealed to the international community.

It is more than unlikely that this climate argument will turn the tide in the Ukraine war and revolutionize the arms industry. Selenskyj is not wrong, however, because wars – whether in Ukraine or elsewhere – are anything but environmentally friendly, let alone climate-friendly.

"Every war damages humanity on various levels for years and decades, many of the consequences are still clearly noticeable 30 years after the end of the war," writes the German Economic Institute (IW). The most striking example to date: the Vietnam War. Between 1962 and 1971, the Americans rained more than 45 million liters of "Agent Orange" on the country's forests to defoliate the trees and make the enemy visible. A study from 2019 showed that the poison remains in the soil with other so-called herbicides to this day. Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the substances are still causing damage to the health of the population.

In later wars, such as in Iraq or Syria, it is mainly oil from natural sources and refineries that contaminates soil and water due to attacks.

Legally, those responsible are only held accountable under certain conditions. It is true that military interventions in the environment with long-term or permanent consequences are outlawed under international law. In addition, the UN Convention on War on the Environment and an additional protocol to the Geneva Convention prohibit forms of war that use technology that alters the environment. But most cases of environmental degradation are legally treated as collateral damage. According to lawyers, other cases, such as the use of "Agent Orange", cannot be clearly classified.

According to the Guardian, Ukraine has already documented more than 2,200 cases of environmental damage caused by the Russian war of aggression. According to the environmental organization WWF, more than six million Ukrainians have no or only limited access to clean drinking water. In addition, 280,000 hectares of forest are said to have been destroyed. The Nabu nature conservation association writes that 20 percent of Ukraine's nature reserves were destroyed in the first five months of the war alone. In the meantime it should have become far more.

The climate also suffers from military conflicts. Ukraine, for example, puts the emissions caused since the start of the Russian war of aggression at 33 million tons of CO2. According to information from the IW, a Russian T-72 tank consumes 250 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers "on paved roads, significantly more off-road". However, this is "only a fraction of the emissions (...) caused by wars".

As early as 2020, climate researchers from Great Britain came to the conclusion in a study that armed forces are among the biggest polluters on the planet. The group "Scientists for Global Responsibility" has calculated that the world's militaries, together with the defense industries, cause about six percent of global emissions. Overall, however, there are hardly any reliable figures on military emissions circulating.

This is because states are not required to publish the greenhouse gas emissions of their armed forces. The military is also exempt from the climate targets. The US government once advocated this when the Kyoto Protocol was being developed.

This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the military influence on the climate and environment. Global military spending was $2.1 trillion in 2021. By far the highest expenditures were in the USA with a budget of 801 million dollars. China followed with $293 million. Germany ranks seventh with 56 million dollars (almost 54 million euros).

According to a trend table by the Federal Environment Agency (Uba), which is available to stern, emissions from the German military in 2020 were 373 kilotons. This number includes both emissions from the fuels consumed in military installations and from military vehicles and mobile machinery. A spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Infrastructure, Environmental Protection and Services of the Bundeswehr put the emissions at 1.45 million tons for the year 2019. The Bundeswehr's emissions only make up a proportion of the total German greenhouse gas emissions, which are spent at 805 million tons of almost 0.2 percent. There is no information on foreign assignments. The spokeswoman justified this with the "multinational organization of foreign assignments".

For safety reasons, there is no detailed information on the fuel consumption of military vehicles in Germany. Statistics are available from the Federal Office of Economics and Exit Control (Bafa) that show how many petroleum products go to the military. According to a document that Uba sent to Stern, the total deliveries for December 2019 alone amounted to 5433 tons. The majority of this is petrol, followed by heating oil and diesel fuel. "The sales statistics mentioned do not include any quantities refueled abroad, as part of foreign operations," says Uba's written response. In addition, it is not possible to say exactly how much of the domestic deliveries are consumed abroad.

The four leading German armaments companies asked did not comment on the fuel consumption of their vehicles or flying objects. Fuel consumption is top secret because you can use it to draw conclusions about the range and endurance of a vehicle," says thyssenkrupp Marine Systems when asked by stern.

Airbus, for example, says it is “working flat out” to make production more climate-friendly. From 2024, all plants in Europe are to be supplied with 100 percent renewable and low-carbon electricity. Regardless of the war in Ukraine, the company is working to make military aircraft more environmentally friendly. In July and October this year, Airbus tested sustainable fuels on two transport aircraft. In addition, the unmanned flight system Zephyr is operated exclusively with solar energy. A first flight lasted 26 days - "the longest flight that has ever been carried out without refueling," Airbus told Stern.

The company thyssenkrupp Marine Systems also expects that the defense industry will become more climate-friendly in the future. Both in the manufacture of the products and the products themselves. Some of the group's submarines are already being operated with fuel cells. The fact that diesel vehicles are currently even more popular is due to the fact that the fuel is available worldwide. In addition, military vehicles and aircraft powered by renewable energy have so far not been able to perform as well as those powered by fossil fuels.

At the climate summit in Egypt, the deputy Ukrainian environment minister spoke of an "ecocite" in her country. The reconstruction of the destroyed cities, towns and industry will produce another 50 million tons of CO2. "Russia must be held accountable for this, not only to Ukraine but to the entire world," Ukraine's Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets said at the UN climate conference.

"We must stop those who, through their illegal war, are destroying the world's ability to work together for a common goal," said Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. In view of the destruction of Ukrainian forests since Russia invaded, he called for a global platform to evaluate the "impact of military actions on the climate and the environment."

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Minister of the Environment has announced that a data platform will be set up to systematically record environmental damage. He hopes that international environmental and climate damage from the Russian attack could be brought together in this way. However, he fears that it will be very difficult to sue Russia for damages for every environmental damage.

Sources: German Economic Institute, "Welt", "The Guardian", "Spektrum der Wissenschaft", Nabu, with material from DPA and AFP

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