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Q&A with SEI’s Harri Moora: Russia’s attack against Ukraine has already caused irreparable damage to the environment

The war in Ukraine has very direct impacts on the local environment, some of which can never be repaired. It also has significant far-reaching consequences for the worlds climate policies.

The current energy and economic crises can be used as excuses for European countries to go back to local fossil fuels, but they can also be used as accelerators for the EUs green transition, said SEI Tallinn Environmental Management Programme Director and Senior Expert Harri Moora in an interview by Joanna Laast first published in the Estonian daily Eesti Päevaleht (in Estonian) on 15 March 2022.

Anette Parksepp / Published on 31 March 2022

What is the impact of war on the environment?

Military activities have an impact on the environment even in peacetime. Preparing for war requires constant drills that damage and pollute the environment, just like any other immediate actions in our natural environment. Any kind of military action consumes massive quantities of energy and resources. Military vehicles – from aircraft to vessels – require a large amount of fuel. Buildings and infrastructure, including warehouses, barracks and offices, need energy. Using energy and fuel directly contributes to climate change.

In addition to the impact on climate, the military sector has a huge resource footprint. Soldiers need food and clothes. Weaponry, ammunition and other equipment require different materials, including metals – the defence sector competes with the civilian sector for the use of finite resources.

Research has shown that the US military is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, releasing more carbon dioxide than most countries. At the same time, NATO’s military activities during peacetime are strictly controlled and the environmental impact is being reduced where possible.

Actual military conflict has an incomparably greater impact on people and the natural environment than military preparations during peacetime. The exact environmental impact depends on the size of the conflict, its parties and how much they abide by internationally agreed-upon rules. Military conflict not only kills people but also demolishes infrastructure, creates fires and releases hazardous substances, which in turn significantly pollute the air, surface and drinking water.

Especially destructive environmental impacts are suffered from the use of scorched earth strategies when big industrial complexes, energy plants and storage facilities are attacked. Often, agricultural facilities, farmlands and reservoirs are destroyed in conflict and forests and nature reserves burned down. On the one hand, this kind of destruction poses a short-term risk to people’s health and the environment. On the other hand, military conflicts usually have a long-term impact on the environment as well, polluting soil, contaminating the water supply and thus creating long-term health issues, hunger and other problems for people living in that environment.

How does the current war in Ukraine affect the environment?

Unfortunately, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has shown that its military actions do not abide by any international agreements. Russian military indiscriminately bombs civilian buildings and industrial plants, as well as vital infrastructure and services. Important nature reserves have burned, with a presumably irreversible impact on ecosystems. All of it creates indescribable suffering for people and the natural environment. The dust and combustion gases have poisoned people and created widespread air pollution. Satellite pictures have shown wildfire areas and smoke clouds all over Ukraine. Ukraine has a lot of industrial objects and waste facilities, which can create wide and long-term pollution in Ukraine and neighbouring countries when destroyed.

Unfortunately, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has shown that its military actions do not abide by any international agreements.

The greatest direct risk to our lives, health and environment is Russia’s attack on nuclear plants. So far, catastrophes have been fortunately avoided, but the Russian army has shown that they will not shy away from bombing even such facilities. Hopefully, the current conflict will not develop into nuclear war, the impacts of which we cannot even grasp. Either way, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine causes irreparable damage on a global, regional and local scale and we in Europe definitely will not be untouched by it.

It must also be taken into account that the defence crisis created by the Russian attack against Ukraine can significantly alter our environmental policies and outlook on the green transition. The growing security and economic crises take a majority of the attention from politicians and society. European countries are required to spend massive amounts of money on defence and military. This means that we will have less money to spend on the green transition. Furthermore, the EU had counted on Russian gas for the transition phase of energy decarbonization – 40% of gas in Europe currently comes from Russia. Even the most optimistic analysts have said that in the best-case scenario, the EU can replace up to half of Russian gas with alternatives in the next year. We will probably have to use a larger proportion of local fossil fuels because of the energy crisis. This includes coal and oil shale.

On the other hand, the current security and energy crisis could in fact accelerate the European energy transition. The European Commission has already come out with a plan to disengage from Russian fossil fuels by 2027. This will be definitely a huge challenge. However, making the right decisions and significantly accelerating the transition to green energy and new technologies will make it possible. A rapid energy transition is also important from a defence perspective: all these years, we ourselves have grown the muscles of Putin’s war machine by buying gas and oil from Russia.

All these years, we ourselves have grown the muscles of Putin’s war machine by buying gas and oil from Russia.

What are the most significant recent historical examples of when war has impacted the environment?

The impacts of war on the environment can be very complex since they intersect with other political, economic and environmental factors in the region. For example, a 2020 report on the environmental impacts of war gives an example of the war in Yemen. Researchers argued that the factors behind Yemen’s food insecurity are plenty, including “direct attacks to farms and agricultural infrastructure, the economic blockade and war economy reducing access to water, agricultural inputs and markets, and the collapse of governance.”

The authors also noted that in August 2019, a swarm of locusts originating from Yemen migrated to Ethiopia and other surrounding countries. The next generation of locusts is expected to transit to West Africa. “The conflict conditions in Yemen prevented proper control measures, leading to an environmental and humanitarian crisis elsewhere. It is a remarkable example of the environmental dimensions of conflict reverberating across a continent, potentially destabilising areas thousands of kilometres away,” the case study observed.

Analysts have pointed to the connection between climate change and conflict. Environmental and climate changes can themselves act as catalysts for conflicts and wars. For example, one of the impulses behind the Arab Spring and the subsequent conflicts is argued to be the worsening environment due to climate change. All kinds of military activities have environmental impacts, which unfortunately contribute to the acceleration of new conflicts.

Environmental and climate changes can themselves act as catalysts for conflicts and wars.

Are there any specific environmental principles that should be followed in war?

Most countries have agreed-upon international rules and conventions to reduce the negative impacts of war. This includes principles to avoid destroying the environment. For example, Article 55 of Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions states, “Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population. Attacks against the natural environment by way of reprisals are prohibited.”

Recent military conflicts, especially the war in Ukraine, have unfortunately shown that these principles are not actually being followed in combat.

What are NATO’s principles regarding the environmental impact of war?

In recent decades, NATO has paid a lot of attention to avoiding and minimizing environmental harm, introducing a number of principles and standards. Environmental principles and measures include daily peacetime activities (maintaining cars, storing fuels, providing energy efficiency and using natural environments for military training), foreign missions and large-scale war activities.

Increasing attention has been paid to developing war tactics and precision weapons with a smaller impact on the environment and civilian people. Recent NATO combat has shown the effectiveness of this approach. Overall, the impact on habitats and the natural environment has been kept relatively small.

You can read more about the environmental principles of NATO here.

Do countries even include the defence sector in their climate policies since this domain cannot become climate neutral anyway?

NATO countries do consider their military actions as a part of national climate policy. At the same time, they do recognize that civilian sector principles and measures cannot always be implemented in the defence sector. The defence sector requires continuity in all conditions and circumstances. For example, military vehicles cannot use the most innovative environmental solutions, such as electric motors, so they mostly use fossil fuels.

The defence sector requires continuity in all conditions and circumstances.

In the case of military infrastructure and buildings, including warehouses, barracks and offices, reducing negative climate impact does not really differ that much from the civilian sphere: common energy-efficient and energy-saving solutions can be used, and waste and materials can be reused and recycled. In a way, implementing these solutions in the defence sector is easier than in the civil sphere since the top-down management style allows agreed-upon measures to be carried out in a fast and effective manner. Faster solutions are not as easy in the civilian society.

Western and NATO countries, including Estonia, try to reduce their environmental impacts as much as possible. For example, they develop energy-efficient technologies, implement environmental management systems and rulebooks. Weapons and war equipment are becoming increasingly smarter and more precise in order to avoid large destruction. Massive bombing will likely happen less, which makes it possible to use fewer resources and reduce their direct environmental impact.

The Estonian Ministry of Defence is said to pay a lot of attention to sustainability. In which ways?

From the experience of SEI Tallinn, the Estonian Ministry of Defence is definitely a pioneer among ministries in terms of planning and managing their environmental impact, showing the way to other authorities. Last year, the Ministry of Defence updated its environmental and climate policies for its area of government. This includes very concrete goals, measures and activities to reduce the environmental and climate impact of the defence sector. Reducing the footprint includes protection of the natural environment, energy and fuel usage, recycling, water usage and environmental awareness. The Ministry of Defence is the only ministry in Estonia that has such a detailed development plan.

The Estonian Ministry of Defence and the Centre for Defence Investment have taken steps toward sustainability not only from the military perspective, but also in their offices and daily activities. Institutions under the Ministry of Defence have implemented the green office system (in Estonian) in their bigger buildings and the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme on their larger army bases. Last year, SEI Tallinn together with the International Centre for Defence and Security analysed (in Estonian) the Estonian defence sector’s environmental footprint and opportunities to reduce it.


Harri Moora

Head of Unit, Senior Expert (Green and Circular Economic Transformations Unit)

SEI Tallinn

Written by

Anette Parksepp

Communications Expert


SEI Tallinn

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