How green can Ukraine’s recovery really be?

Greenpeace activists raise a wind turbine replica near the Ukraine Recovery Conference in call for green reconstruction, on 4 July, 2022. (Credit: Greenpeace)

Rebuilding Ukraine sustainably faces challenges as war continues to wreak havoc and puts pressure on the energy sector.

The war has taken a toll on Ukraine’s environment, polluting soils and rivers for decades to come. As Ukraine launched a reconstruction process at the Ukraine Recovery Conference, the commitment to restore ecosystems and rebuild the country in a green way was in everyone’s lips.

But with an economy heavily dependent on polluting industries, European countries rushing to cut oil and gas dependency on Russia and billions of dollars in infrastructure damage to repair, the environment might just be put on the back burner.

Cleaning up from the wastes of war

The siege of the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, the takeover of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant or the bombarding of the Avdiivka coke and chemical plant in Donetsk are a reminder of the environmental risks that war poses.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, there have been over 580 disruptions in industrial and infrastructure facilities, according to figures by the Geneva-based Zoi Environment Network. Attacks on these sites have caused leakages of toxic substances into the water, air and soil that will need years of clean up work.

Speaking to Geneva Solutions and German TV, Ukrainian Minister of the environment Ruslan Strilet said: “The first step will be to clean our country from the wastes of war.”

Strilet noted that there were about 200,000 tonnes of metal scrap that needed to be collected. His office has estimated the costs of environmental damage at 200bn hryvnia (CHF6.5bn).

But a big part of the work will have to wait for fire exchanges to stop. In the eastern part of the country, home to Ukraine’s coal mines and other heavy industrial activities, environmentalists fear the worst. With hostilities ongoing and eight years of fighting have already wreaked havoc in these regions, it is hard to assess the damage that has been caused.

Can Ukraine build green?

With the homes of some 3.5 million Ukrainians reportedly being destroyed, 24 km of road in ruins and hundreds of hospitals, schools and businesses damaged, according to government figures, there will be pressure for Ukraine to rebuild fast and cheap. Only infrastructure damage costs have been estimated by the government at $100bn.

For Anna Ackermann, climate and energy policy specialist for the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, even if reconstruction cannot begin now, plans must already integrate principles of sustainability.

“We care that cities that have to be replanned from scratch are not built in the 20th century way,” she told Geneva Solutions. As an example, buildings could be renovated to be energy efficient and urban areas could be designed to promote cleaner means of transportation, she said.

Ukraine's pursuit to join the EU and obtain loans from international banks will weigh in its decisions and nudge it to adopt a greener pathway in certain areas. Presenting Ukraine’s recovery plan in Lugano, prime minister Denys Schmyhal assured that efforts such as “energy efficiency campaigns or new housing construction” would be based on European standards and guidelines.

A step back on the green transition

As oil prices continue to soar and Russia threatens to close the gas tap on Europe, plans to shift to renewable energies might be derailed. On Wednesday, the European Parliament voted to consider gas and nuclear investments as green. Despite being considered the cleanest of fossil fuels, producing half as much greenhouse gas emissions as coal, natural gas is still an important contributor to climate change.

Campaigners have warned that the strategy would only favour Russia, the second biggest gas producer. In a leaked letter addressed to members of the European Parliament ahead of the vote and seen by Geneva Solutions, Ukrainian minister of energy German Galushchenko said that “the inclusion of gas and nuclear in the taxonomy is an important element of the energy security in Europe, especially with a view to replacing Russian gas”. He argued in the letter that Ukraine could help replace Moscow’s supply.

The revelation sparked outcry from the Ukrainian solidarity movement Razom, who saw it as an alignment with Russian interests. ​​" Ukraine’s energy system now is in critical danger because of over reliance on nuclear and gas,” the group said, noting that Europe’s biggest nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhya remains in the hands of Russian forces and that most of Ukraine’s gas production wells are in regions near the frontline.

“If Putin would decide to disrupt energy supply in Ukraine, he could do so by attacking critically vulnerable and centralised energy infrastructure, such as substations and power lines that connect nuclear power plants to the grid and gas wells and pipelines that provide fuel for heating our homes,” the statement said.

When energy trumps environment

Pushing for renewable energies does appear on the government’s plans. But Ackermann, who was part of the working groups set up to come up with the draft recovery plan, says that the ministry of energy is not convinced that renewables can ensure energy security. According to the document, renewable energy supply is only projected to increase from one per cent in 2019 to five per cent in 2032.

Environmentalists are even more worried about discussions of merging Ukraine’s energy and environment ministries to cut back on expenses. This is a major threat to the environment, according to Bohdan Vykhor chief executive of WWF Ukraine, who was in Lugano to monitor discussions between the Ukrainian government and international partners.

“To rebuild Ukraine, we need a strong ministry of environment to plan well and check compliance with EU legislation as we move towards EU membership,” he told Geneva Solutions.

This has been tried in the past only to be reverted after six months. Strilet said: “As a consequence of this fusion [of the environment and energy ministries], we almost lost our ecological component [of the ministry]. It was not the best experience for us.”

Asked about the rumours of another merger, the environment minister said: “It is very difficult to say, but I'm sure that [regardless] of the decision that the prime minister and president of Ukraine will make, all the cabinet of ministers will work together and we will make our transition green”.

While rebuilding plans for Ukraine will not be executed until after the war, Ackermann noted that it was essential to make sure that “we build a country people want to come back to.”