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As the Russian-Ukraine war continues, radioactive radiation isn’t the only environmental hazard world faces. The war also threatens several environmentally fragile regions throughout Ukraine. Along with a humanitarian crisis, the conflict has left Ukraine’s environment, wildlife, and resources reeling in jeopardy from the constant exchange of firearms.
Ukraine’s precious ecosystems are facing a variety of threats from radiation and hazardous chemicals to resource depletion. Below are some of the ways the Russia-Ukraine war is affecting the region and the entire globe.
When Russian forces captured the Chornobyl region, people across the globe were concerned about a radiation leak. But the threats and risks that Chornobyl poses are not only associated with the power plant. They also extend to the enormous coniferous forests surrounding the plant.
Dr. William Keeton from the University of Vermont is an expert on Ukraine’s forests. He warns that these forests still contain significant amounts of radiation from the 1986 disaster that destroyed the power plant. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Chornobyl’s capture have raised the risk of these forests catching fire. If the woods catch fire, the result could be a catastrophic release of radiation into the surrounding atmosphere.
Thirty years ago, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for guaranteed security from Russia, the United States, and the UK. However, Ukraine still retained its civilian nuclear industry. One of the first sites captured by Russia when it first invaded Ukraine was the defunct Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Russia has failed to safeguard the plant. It has disconnected it from Ukraine’s energy grid. Disruptions in energy supplies like these could hinder the cooling of pools at the plant. The cooling pools are necessary for Chornobyl’s more than 20,000 spent fuel rods still stored at the power plant.
The Ministry of Environment of Ukraine announced that radioactive dust is being stirred up due to military movements. Until it shut down due to lack of power, the Chornobyl plant’s automated monitoring system reported that local radiation levels increased. Russia’s military forces have even fired on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The power plant is the largest in Europe and the ninth-largest in the world.
The first Russian airstrike was in February this year. The airstrike hit fuel storage tankers at the Chuhuiv air base. The attack caused a fire to break out. In the first two weeks of the Russian invasion, the military constantly bombarded energy infrastructures like fuel tankers and depots. Many of the attacked places were located close to residential areas. Air pollution levels rose due to the fires.
The Russian-Ukraine conflict has threatened to disrupt global energy and food markets. The disruption will have significant implications for global climate agendas. Russia is one of the world’s major oil and natural gas suppliers. With the conflict, countries, mainly in Europe, are scrambling to find alternatives to Russia’s oil and natural gas supplies. This puts the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels in peril.
The short-term measures by countries replacing Russian oil and gas may create a long-term dependence on fossil fuels. A globally high dependency on fossil fuels will close the window for limiting temperatures to 1.5oC. Countries need to replace not only Russia’s oil and gas supplies but also pour vast amounts of investments in renewable energy technology. Limiting global temperature rise to even 2oC may be out of reach if we continue with present-day scenarios.
A fertilizer-producing facility at Sumykhimprom reported an ammonia leakage due to bouts of Russian shelling.
Ammonia is a highly toxic, corrosive, and hazardous material. It can be fatal to humans if absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or ingested. The governor of the region asked residents to move to basements or lower levels of buildings to avoid ammonia exposure. He also advised residents to breathe through citric acid-soaked gauze bandages if they detected ammonia.
Ammonia is lighter than air and can reach higher levels in the atmosphere. Therefore, seeking refuge in basements and lower floors will reduce exposure. Luckily for the region’s residents, strong prevailing winds carried most of the ammonia away. However, the incident still brings chemical exposure risks associated with modern-day wars to the forefront.
Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, neighboring countries have established several humanitarian corridors. These corridors allow the safe passage of thousands of people fleeing the war-torn country.
Recently, a few Ukrainian zoos asked that countries also establish corridors to evacuate some of their animals safely. Zoo staff is hopeful that these corridors will permit neighboring countries to transport food and fuel to heat the animal enclosures. Large animals that are difficult to transport have stayed in enclosures throughout the war.
Green corridors will help bring in heat, diesel, and food for the animals. The zoo staff cannot evacuate big animals like giraffes and rhinos. Right now, they don’t even have the medicine to put them to sleep. Negotiating green corridors are the only hope for these animals.
Ukraine hosts more than 30% of Europe’s biodiversity. The risk of ecological collapse in the region is growing every day the war continues. This must serve as a reminder to the world that wars bring with them unimaginable human and ecological losses. The more the conflict lingers or even escalates, the more disastrous it will become for the country and the entire world. The war is tearing down global, collective hopes of a greener future. Recovering from the impacts of the conflict could take the world and Ukraine decades.