As our world grapples with conflicts — from the Russo-Ukraine war to Israel’s war on Palestine — and the looming crisis of climate change, it becomes increasingly apparent that these forces are not isolated actors on the global stage. The dire consequence of war is most starkly observed from the human toll incurred. News of the Israel-Palestine war has reported large numbers of deaths, sparing neither women, children, the old or the sick. The ravages of war leave behind them a trail of horrifying destruction, with far and long-reaching consequences, one of which is climate change.
Although not all are immediately apparent or seemingly significant in the midst of conflict, engaging in war negatively impacts our climate in a multitude of ways. On the battlefield, for example, large amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted from the fuel used by military activities. Additionally, deforestation due to intense fighting and displacement contributes to climate change. In the long run, the reconstruction of infrastructure will result in more greenhouse gases emitted.
Conversely, the effects of a warming planet create conditions ripe for conflict, fuelling a cycle that demands urgent attention and collective action. War serves no purpose to anyone apart from those profiting from it. Thus, to achieve a sustainable world, we need peace first and foremost. And to achieve peace, we must reflect and recognise the extent of the damage war has wrought on our climate.
The escalating conflict in Palestine has now put the spotlight on emissions and environmental damages resulting from war. Thanks to the press and social media, the damage is more evident now than ever, as people from around the world witness, in real-time, the wide-scale destruction caused by modern-day warfare. Like all others, this war directly consumed large amounts of fossil fuel, leading to excessive carbon emissions and environmental pollutants. An earlier report from the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor says around 25,000 tonnes of munitions were dropped on Gaza in the first few weeks of the war. The carbon emissions from this would be equivalent to the annual energy use of approximately 2,300 homes or the annual greenhouse gas emissions from about 4,600 passenger vehicles.
Indirect pollution from the war includes the carbon emissions that will be released during the rebuilding of Gaza. Producing concrete leaves a large carbon footprint, and it was estimated that 5.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions would be released from the production of construction materials and the construction activities itself.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Gaza had one of the world’s highest densities of solar rooftop installations. However, the current war has destroyed these solar systems, with 17 of the 29 largest rooftop solar installations either completely destroyed or displaying significant external damage. This sets back the region’s climate change efforts and its environmental governance.
At COP 28, where Palestine held a pavilion of its own for the first time, representatives stated that human-caused climate change is a pressing issue for the Palestinian delegation. They said Palestine is still committed to its climate mitigation targets despite the setbacks they have experienced due to the war. Hadeel Ikhmais, a member of Palestine’s Environment Quality Authority, said, “We consider this a challenge, not something to stop us from implementing our projects. We have to restart, reinvent adaptation and mitigation action in the Gaza strip.”
Eighteen months into the war, greenhouse gas emissions have totalled nearly 150 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions (tCO2e), according to the latest report by Initiative on GHG accounting of war. This is equivalent to the annual GHG emissions from a highly industrialised country like Belgium. Direct GHG emissions from warfare alone have nearly reached 37 million tCO2e, with fuel consumption by Russian troops emitting the bulk of it. Another significant source of emission at 22.2 million tCO2e is fires, much of which started from the front line and led to the destruction of forested areas.
Indirect emissions resulting from the war include redirected air travel due to the closure of Russian and Ukrainian airspace and the post-war reconstruction of infrastructure. For the former, longer flight routes have led to increased flight times, necessitating higher fuel consumption. The report calculated that the detours taken by aeroplanes, mainly those travelling between Europe and Asia, emitted a total of 18 million tCO2e.
Post-war reconstruction would emit a total of 54 million tCO2e and is the largest source (36%) of emissions from the war. According to the report, the most important single event that contributed to the need for major reconstruction was the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, which resulted in a flood downstream and emptying the reservoir.
The war has also upended global energy politics, particularly with Russia cutting its gas and oil supply to EU countries. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that nearly 80% of Russia’s gas supplies to the EU were severed in the eight months after the conflict began in Ukraine. In the short term, concerns over energy independence could prompt countries to delay or cancel action on reducing their carbon footprints.
However, this has also compelled countries to diversify and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Although there was fear that European countries might turn to coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, to provide power, it did not materialise. In the winter of 2022, coal generation fell due to a significant decrease in electricity demand. This can be attributed to the efforts of households and industry to reduce electricity consumption, combined with mild weather. In the same year, wind and solar combined overtook natural gas in electricity generation in the EU for the first time ever.
War and Climate Change Cycle
All these elements contribute to a vicious cycle of war exacerbating climate change, which, in turn, leads to increased conflict. While climate change is seldom a direct factor in this cycle, it contributes indirectly by making the most vulnerable even more vulnerable. The release of greenhouse gases and the destruction of ecosystems have ultimately led to fragile regions facing increased food insecurity and competition over scarce resources, particularly water. When combined with land degradation and over-exploitation of the environment, climate change can make an already fraught situation untenable. This results in the displacement of the people, increased number of refugees and social unrest.
War and climate change are vastly interconnected and, hence, should not be dealt with independently should governments and organisations want to create lasting change. It is evident that the climate impact of war results in massive carbon emissions both in the short and long term. Furthermore, any potential climate progress that could have been made by the countries involved will have been majorly set back, as the focus shifts to survival amid the ongoing war. This makes the effect of climate change even more severe, which in turn impacts regions that are already grappling with the repercussions of climate change, contributing to rising unrest and leading to more conflicts. This vicious cycle perpetuates itself, and the consequences will grow more and more severe unless we act on a global scale to combat the cycle of destruction.
By recognising the far-reaching consequences of conflict-induced environmental degradation, it becomes imperative for nations and organisations to adopt comprehensive strategies that address both issues simultaneously. Our commitment to mitigating climate change cannot be detached from the pursuit of peace. It is a symbiotic relationship, and only through a combined effort can we hope to break the cycle of destruction, fostering a sustainable and balanced future.