Protecting our environment on the frontlines of war

As soon as we make it out of one crisis, we find ourselves in another. Our false sense of security within the world is crumbling in front of our very eyes. Soon after the end of the pandemic restrictions, the fear of sickness was substituted with the horrors of war. Who cares about climate anxiety anymore?

When thousands die and millions are forced to leave their homes behind, even the smallest problems seem more important than worrying about polar bears. This is a natural and normal reaction to the situation we find ourselves in. The future became uncertain, and the emphasis shifted from slowly building towards long term goals to searching for short term solutions. However, as the humanitarian crisis deepens, the state of our environment is getting worse and worse. By exhausting our natural resources, we decrease the chances of leaving behind a more peaceful world for future generations and thus a question comes to mind: can measures made to combat climate change and ecological problems be ignored because of the war?

Unavoidable environmental policies

It’s difficult to speak about the importance of “going green” when there’s a war going on next door. The direct environmental effects of the fighting in the Russian-Ukrainian war are significant – just think about the risk of radioactive materials polluting the environment or the bombings that have already resulted in forest fires, the contamination resulting from the shutdown of water treatment plants and other water facilities, and the greenhouse gas emissions and contamination caused by armoured vehicles. Furthermore, the protection of our environment is under threat on fronts far from war.

The effects of the war are significant even outside Ukraine and Russia. People are forced to leave their homes and thousands are wounded or end up losing their life. Nevertheless, the issues green policy deals with cannot be neglected, whether it’s the energy crisis or food security, the effects of climate change, declining ecosystems or the opportunities for sustainable management using our natural resources more carefully.
The upcoming weeks will be crucial in terms of our future. History will show how serious the European Union member states' environmental and climate protection efforts are and the conclusions we can make on their durability and correctness.

Environmentalism, a luxury for times of peace?

There’s a growing number of people who believe that the goals and execution of the European Green Deal need to be re-examined or at least postponed in face of the economic effects of the war. It became apparent even before the coronavirus pandemic that the European Union’s resilience, vulnerable to global value chains, needs to be strengthened. The vulnerability of supply chains is further intensified by the increasingly worrying effects of declining ecosystem services resulting from climate change and a decrease in biodiversity. The EU Green Deal policies are trying to offer a sustainable – and affordable – solution to precisely these problems, encouraging the switch to renewable resources at high speed and restoring natural systems or climate resilient agricultural solutions. It is obvious that the European Union realised that they must take on a leading role in the efforts to go green.

There’s much more at stake here than simply keeping polar bears from dying out as they’re fighting to keep their balance on small chunks of ice sheets (not underestimating the importance of the survival of this iconic species). It’s enough to simply consider that the number of natural disasters increased twofold during the past twenty years as a result of climate change. The frequency of unpredictable and devastating flash floods is increasing, and floods are usually followed by long periods of drought. The direct effect of global warming also adds to the increasingly severe problems resulting from extreme weather conditions. In terms of Europe’s agriculture, it is essential that we keep the global rise in temperatures below 1,5 °C as indicated in the Paris Agreement, as even a 2°C increase would have a considerable negative impact on the production of our major cereal crops such as wheat and corn. This is only one factor out of many that seriously endangers the future of the European Union.

In a broader sense, it is impossible to avoid coming face to face with perhaps the most devastating effect of climate change in the form of the increasing expansion of arid areas. Currently there are close to 450 children living in areas with dangerously low levels of water – places where there isn’t enough water to meet the needs of everyday life -, however as a result of climate change within twenty years it is likely that every fourth child on the planet will live in an area with scarce water resources, leading to further conflicts. This could also be a problem in Europe, but it primarily affects the Middle-East and Africa, where the masses fleeing from water scarcity, hunger and war usually go searching for refuge in Europe. All this, even during peacetime, results in a humanitarian and cultural crisis for which it is impossible to prepare for.

The fight against climate change and biodiversity loss isn’t simply just a moral obligation for Europe – and of course the entire world -, but it is also within their societal and financial interest. It is no accident – and it’s not just an empty phrase – that the political will to fight against climate change is the most prominent in the EU. The European Green Deal however is a system designed in peace times: it builds slowly and gradually, and concerns itself with both preventive and medium- and long-term risks. In contrast, the reality of war emerged suddenly. It’s no surprise that the unexpected crisis compromised to a great extent the implementation of the Green Deal measures. Europe is faced with a decision: will it invest all of its resources to halt the economic decline, not caring for future risks, or will it stand by its Green Deal policies, looking for new paths to explore and shouldering short term risks?

The greens’ warnings are in vain

Although the European Union’s Green Deal contains several progressive elements it is far from being a perfect system. For example, the proposed regulations published by the European Commission in February that deemed nuclear energy and fossil fuels as sustainable solutions drew strong opposition from environmental organisations. Back then no one would’ve guessed that these two energy sources would be the centre of focus as a result of the war.
The dependence on fossil fuels – especially Russian gas – and the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to terrorism, hostilities and natural disasters have on occasion been talking points in ecopolitical debates. However, to a society accustomed to peace and continuous supply of energy, these issues seemed more in line with doomsaying on the part of the greens and there are few who considered the true nature of these risks, who as the current situation shows us were on the right track. 

The direct effects of the war in Ukraine and the inability to sanction Russia because of Europe’s energy dependence made it necessary for the EU to confront the risks of the reliance on energy imports. The EU gets 90% of its gas from external sources, 40% of which comes through Russian pipelines. This cannot be simply substituted for another source. Immediate abandonment of Russian energy would therefore threaten the security of Europe’s energy supply significantly, which is why the EU decided not to do so. 

One step towards the future and two steps back to the past

As a result of the war, the light efforts to shift to cheap Russian natural gas immediately vanished. At the same time, alongside the statements urging the shift to renewable energies, a growing number of voices called for the rejection of the climate protection goals of the Green Deal, or at the very least a re-examination of them.

Although the various heads of state urge the rapid development of renewable energies, the diversification of natural gas sources and swift development of energy development necessary for switching within the Versailles declaration that contains a framework of the EU’s strategic goals regarding the war, there are several EU countries – including Poland and Bulgaria – that dispute the validity of strengthening environmental policies. These countries regard the war sanctions as an opportunity for prolonging their coal-based power generation - approximately 80% of electric energy in Poland is still coal-based. These countries have always argued against a green transition in energy production and are now arguing against natural gas. The primary alternative for Russian pipeline gas is liquified natural gas (LNG); switching to this, however, would be exceptionally expensive, and depending on where it is extracted from, it can be very environmentally damaging. From a climate protection perspective, adapting to fossil fuels arriving by tankers from overseas is definitely a wrong direction. This of course does not mean that coal-based energy is cleaner than LNG, but we must not forget that Europe’s sustainable future isn’t only threatened by the dependence on Russian gas, but also by dependence on all types of fossil fuels. 

Nuclear energy, the dark horse

We need to mention the role of nuclear energy, which the disputed proposed EU Taxonomy regulation termed as green energy. Over the years, there has been a debate about whether nuclear energy is a reliable alternative to the dependence on fossil fuels. Without going into the pros and cons of the argument, there are a few points of consideration within the context of the war.

On one hand the dangers of nuclear energy have been brought to the centre of attention: however safe a nuclear plant might be, it could become a strategic target in an active warzone, and even if the chance of a nuclear disaster occurring during peace time is negligible, the threat of increasingly unpredictable natural disasters and human mistakes cannot be ruled out completely. Furthermore, the capacity of nuclear power plants being able to supply energy to large areas could be a hindrance, as these large areas would lose power, should the power plant become damaged.

On the other hand, we cannot forget that nuclear energy is not a clean and renewable energy source. Nuclear energy is produced from uranium ore, which similarly to fossil fuels, must be imported to fuel the nuclear power plants in the EU. And which countries export the most uranium to the EU? Russia falls only slightly behind Niger, followed by Kazakhstan that is strongly dependent on Russia politically. Therefore, substituting our energy dependence to nuclear energy is out of the question, and we haven’t even mentioned the long-time duration of constructing nuclear power plants, the fact that the planned Hungarian nuclear power station Paks II increases dependence on Russia, and the wide range of problems concerning the storage of used nuclear fuel.

The ‘greening’ of energy policies will be tested in May

There are several other factors to consider regarding the future of the European Union’s energy production, as independence from Russian and Ukrainian fuels and minerals affects almost all areas of life. Hungary is especially dependent on them as in addition to being at the forefront in terms of energy dependency, Hungary is also the leading country in preventing renewable energies, which is further exacerbated by the extremely outdated Hungarian building stock. Hungary should definitely be looking at greener options and should put an end to unnecessary energy waste by investing in the modernization of insulation and buildings, which in turn would increase the role in the European Union going green.

Although circumstances could still change, this May could be a turning point as by the end of May the European Commission will have prepared the RePowerEU plan that aims at making the EU gaining independence from Russian fuels. Currently, however, there is a high degree of chaos and panic and it’s difficult to shift attention away from short term problems to a strategy viable in the long-term. The lobbying of various energy interest groups is also strong, and it is easy to fall into the trap of mistaking habits with the feeling of security and choosing proven solutions instead of a future based on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

We shouldn’t keep avoiding or postponing the switch to green energy and consolidate nuclear energy for another couple of decades by building additional nuclear plants and infrastructure based on fossil fuels. Energy gained from renewable sources is not only cleaner and safer, but it also promotes diversification of energy production and through decentralisation also contributes to the energy self-regulation of local communities and supply safety.

Restoring nature has also been prioritised

Finally, we need to mention another important area of green policies, an area that is inseparable from the goals of climate politics and is of equal – if not higher - importance: biodiversity protection. The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy up to 2030 and the closely related “Farm to Fork” strategy contain highly ambitious commitments that also have an important role in the Common Agricultural Policy that is about to be renewed – or at least there are plans for renewal, but it is possible that the effects of war will override these political ambitions.

Previously, the agricultural sector frequently criticised the goals of the two strategies, especially the ones that refer to the 50% decrease in the use of pesticides and 10% restoration of agricultural land. The emerging food crisis resulting from the war could serve as justification for revitalising discussions about the goals of biodiversity protection. It is already probable that the process of creating the EU regulation concerning nature restoration targets and the sustainable use of pesticides has been postponed.

Similar to policies aiming at combating climate change, these seemingly uneconomical steps weren’t just for the benefit of certain animals and plant species. The decrease in the use of pesticides and allowing nature to move back into farmland are based on very rational reasoning. Many only see the forced expansion of organic farming and afforestation goals behind these measures and the carbon sequestration that comes with it; however, these proposals are more comprehensive and also keep the interests of agriculture in sight. To understand this, we need to acknowledge that agriculture can only operate in a sustainable way by reintegrating into nature’s system.

Let’s take for example the connection between the goals regarding pollinating insects and pesticide decreasing goals. 40% of known insect species – especially butterflies, bees and insects that have a role in pollination – are in danger of going extinct. The ecosystem service role of pollinating insects in the EU is estimated at 14.2 billion euros annually, and the species of pollinating insects also makes a difference – honeybees themselves are not a substitute for the wide variety of wild pollinators. Therefore, it is logical that we support the technology for the safeguarding of pollinating insects if the technology is available. Because pesticides are especially dangerous to these species, precision agricultural methods that decrease pesticide use, as well as the spread of integrated pest management must be encouraged. Even if this entails short term crop failure, it will be worth it in the long run.

In terms of protecting our natural resources, it is even more important to restore 10% of agricultural territories into a state closer to nature. Although it may seem that achieving this goal would result in a loss of a tenth of agricultural production, this is not the case. The original plan was to reintegrate areas and plots already unsuitable for agriculture - such as areas subject to frequent floods or extreme draughts - into nature. In many cases these weren’t previously under cultivation and were turned into arable land mostly because of the dysfunction of the agricultural support system. In addition, these areas that are unsuitable (or less suitable) for arable crops will not be lost to agriculture, on the contrary: the new functions will yield increased profits, as such natural pieces of lands amidst the agrarian landscape could provide refuge for species, which play an important role for production, soil conservation and water conservation.

The war between grain superpowers

We could go on for a long time listing the economic aspects behind the biodiversity protection goals, but this may seem ineffectual amidst an emerging food crisis. The coronavirus is in part responsible for the high food prices even before Russia invaded Ukraine. The rise in prices also affected the agriculturally heavily regulated European market, although the rise in prices weighed the heaviest on the poorest countries.

Currently the world’s biggest grain exporter is at war with the world’s fifth biggest exporter. Collectively, Russia and Ukraine make up a third of the world’s wheat export, a fifth of the world’s corn export and 80% of all sunflower oil exports. The North-African and Middle-Eastern countries that are the biggest purchasers of eastern European grain are suffering from water scarcity and food shortages and cannot gain access to food or can only gain access at a much higher price, which in the long-term could cause serious problems in this region that is already burdened with societal difficulties and climate problems. As mentioned previously, a long-term food shortage could result in another war and another migration crisis towards Europe. 

The effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war do not spare Europe either. Although we do not have to prepare for severe food shortages, the drastic increase in feed and fuel prices will most likely have a significant impact on agriculture. The sanctions against Russia and the problems concerning the natural gas supply cause significant disruptions in the fertiliser industry. Panic has broken out on the grain market so several countries, including Hungary have restricted export, which in this case is an understandable and logical step to take, even though it does nothing to appease the masses and decrease world market prices.

Should every inch of land be sowed?

Similarly to energy politics, as an answer to the worsening crisis, the review of the goals of biodiversity and “Farm to Fork” strategies was suggested as a way to increase food security. It was also suggested that in order to prevent the feed crisis, semi-natural areas that are useless from an agricultural perspective be sowed with protein crops. At first this may seem logical, however if we consider the fact that currently over 70% of EU agricultural lands are used for feeding or fuel production, then we may ask ourselves whether it really is food security problems that make it necessary for us to sacrifice our remaining natural values at the altar of agriculture, or instead choose to reform the production structure. Meeting the feed requirements for biofuel production or factory farming will overshadow the manufacturing of varied plant-based foods and will make healthy and environmentally friendly grassland-based livestock farming unmarketable. And that’s not to mention the startling amount of food waste in the European Union: almost a third of produced food ends up in the trash.

By converting more and more areas into arable land, some may find themselves with short term profit and even extra profit because of the high prices, however the medium- and long-term consequences would entail the downfall of the agricultural ecosystem and a decrease in production effectiveness within the whole of agriculture. We shouldn’t expect such existing technological solutions that could substitute the workings of nature’s complex systems and resources. Although giving up a tenth of agricultural land may seem much, it is still a small price to pay in contrast to soil degradation, disappearance of water habitats, and the decay in pollination and other important ecosystem services. It’ll be the decay of natural systems and not the Russian-Ukrainian war that’s going to lead to the true food safety crisis in Europe.

Let’s not lose our faith in the future

Perhaps the era of European integration as we have known it is over. It may also be true that the Russian-Ukrainian war will end up changing the world. This however cannot be a reason for wasting our resources for short-term goals and sacrificing our children’s future. We need to learn from past mistakes and build the foundation for a safer and more peaceful future based on science.

Author: Dalma Dedák, Policy officer, WWF-Hungary. For more information: