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Scorched earth

Scorched earth

What will it take for a green and prosperous recovery in Ukraine?

Long stories short

  • President Biden appointed Lael Brainard, who has emphasised climate risk at the Fed, as his top economics adviser.
  • Antarctic sea ice extent hit a new record low, and is expected to shrink further before the southern hemisphere summer ends.
  • King Charles wrote a personal message to readers in a children’s book about climate change.

Scorched earth

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed flows of energy globally and, at least in the developed world, accelerated the push for renewables. In Ukraine itself, the war has wreaked havoc on power generating capacity, but it has also sown the seeds of a plan to build a greener post-war nation.

On 24 February 2022 Ukraine’s electricity grid operator safely disconnected the country’s power system from Russia’s as part of a long-planned trial. Four hours later, Russia invaded. 

Ukraine’s grid has been partially integrated with Europe’s ever since – and the plan is to go further. President Volodymyr Zelensky has outlined plans to create a decentralised green energy system that would be immune to missile strikes, as well as looking to export power and become “one of the guarantors of European energy security”. 

So what? Ukraine’s vast, windswept steppe could provide huge quantities of wind and solar power by 2030, according to pre-war estimates. Electricity that’s surplus to immediate demand could be used to generate green hydrogen – by splitting water through electrolysis – and shipped west through the country’s existing gas pipeline network. 

Ukraine’s other advantage is its highly fertile “black soil”, which could be used to replace a quarter of its pre-war gas consumption with biomethane from agricultural waste. 

“Russian aggression has accelerated the move towards net zero in Ukraine,” says Antonina Antosha, spokesperson for DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company. “We all understand that the sooner we build renewable energy sources, the faster we become free.”

But that freedom comes at a substantial cost to the country’s energy system and environment.

By the numbers:

40 – per cent of Ukraine’s energy network that was damaged in missile attacks last October.

90 – per cent of wind generation assets that have either been destroyed or are under Russian occupation.

2,500 – number of Black Sea dolphins that washed up dead on Ukraine’s shores between February and May 2022. Marine biologists say acoustic trauma from increased use of Russian submarine sonar is the main culprit.

3 million – hectares of forest burned or impacted by fighting across an area larger than Albania.

46 billion – cost, in US dollars, of measurable environmental damage according to the government of Ukraine. Includes direct military damage to air, forests, soil and water; pollution from weapons and shelling of facilities containing toxic material.

The recovery. The EU has endorsed Zelensky’s vision of rebuilding the country on a more sustainable basis. At last year’s Ukraine Recovery Conference, Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a Ukraine that would not only be free and democratic but “green and prosperous”.

Ukraine’s nuclear reactors provide a steady source of low-carbon power generation that can be teamed up with fluctuating green sources. The country’s ageing coal power stations made up 30 per cent of its energy mix in 2018, followed by natural gas (28 per cent) and nuclear (24 per cent), according to the International Energy Agency, while renewables accounted for 5 per cent.

DTEK, which has a large coal portfolio, says it does not plan to rehabilitate its coal mines and thermal power plants in the occupied Donbas, but is shifting investment into renewable projects instead.

Ukraine has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent by 2030, on 1990 levels, but achieving or even surpassing that ambition is dependent on several factors including:

  • Finding new places to build. Two-thirds of Ukraine’s current renewable energy projects are located in regions close to where conflict has taken place.
  • Foreign aid and investment. More than 300 companies from 22 countries signed up to attend a Rebuild Ukraine trade fair last week, but the conflict means even the boldest investors have difficulty getting insurance – guarantees from development banks will play a critical role in unlocking private investment.
  • Ending corruption. A former minister for energy and coal in Ukraine is under investigation for negligence that allegedly led to public budget losses of $37 million to oligarch-linked companies. In 2021, the OECD criticised a lack of “tone from the top” on the importance of anti-corruption efforts in the energy sector. 

Ukraine’s leaders have grasped that a fast track to EU membership is painted green. Ending the war comes first. Building a more sustainable future would be a fitting legacy for those fighting for a better Ukraine.

Roman Ratushnyi, the young political activist who was killed in combat near Kharkiv last year, first made his name as an environmental campaigner.


Fragile China

A survey of more 2,600 regions worldwide found that China is home to 16 of the top 20 places most vulnerable to climate change. Data from XDI, a business that specialises in assessing climate risk, showed that the Chinese coastal province of Jiangsu, which accounts for a tenth of China’s GDP, topped the list of areas likely to experience economic damage from 3C of temperature rise. Neighbouring Shandong and the major steel production base of Hebei ranked second and third respectively. For China, the threat became all too tangible last summer when a record 70-day heatwave caused economic losses of $400 million. The most vulnerable place that isn’t in China? Florida.


Asking for an upgrade

The EU’s new rulebook on sustainable finance drew criticism last year when it labelled natural gas as green. Now the aviation industry is lobbying to have new aircraft powered by kerosene classified as a “best in class” investment. Calculations by the NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) found that 90 per cent of Airbus’ order book would make the cut under proposed changes to the taxonomy that rubber stamp newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft. But the reality is new planes only offer a 15 to 20 per cent saving in emissions, and are no substitute for long-term solutions like sustainable fuel. Will Ursula von der Leyen approve the changes? It’s not a good omen that several organisations, including T&E, have left the taxonomy consultation citing political interference by the European Commission.


Cows and coca

Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine. Its crop last year was record-breaking. But it is beef and not the white powder that is the main driver of forest loss in the Colombian Amazon, according to a new study by university researchers who applied machine learning to satellite data. Their study attributes 3 million hectares of deforestation to cattle compared with 45,000 hectares attributable to coca farming, from 1985 to 2019. This isn’t a story about beef consumption though; that has remained stable in Colombia. Instead, the conversion of forest to pasture is a method of grabbing land in a country where institutions are weak.


Famous for 15 minutes

The idea that nearly all of our daily necessities should be within a 15-minute walk is an unlikely source of controversy. Cities across the world are reclaiming space from cars with traffic-filtering measures such as the UK’s low-traffic neighbourhoods and Barcelona’s ‘superblocks’. Local election results suggest they are popular with voters, or at least not contentious enough to swing results. But car owners tend to be older, richer and live in the suburbs, a demographic that matters in national elections. There are likely to be more protests like the one in Oxford on Sunday, and more Tory MPs grumbling in the Commons.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

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