At war, Russia aims to claim Ukraine’s land — and its carbon emissions

Countries usually try to lower their carbon emissions, not increase them. But this year, Ukraine and Russia are locked in a battle over who gets to claim the greenhouse gases of Crimea and other Ukrainian territory the Kremlin has occupied by force.

It is the latest method by which Russia is trying to establish dominion over a nation its leaders are bombarding — and a measure of the wide-ranging consequences of the war as nations prepare to gather in Egypt next month for a fresh round of U.N. climate negotiations. Ukrainian policymakers, meanwhile, have been forced to expend effort on defending their territory as their own, including in U.N. emissions tallies.

The dispute will peak next month at the talks in Egypt, where Ukraine and Russia are each expected to submit official emissions numbers that include Crimea and other areas of Ukraine that Russia has claimed. Both countries see the numbers as key to asserting their legal rights over the region.

“It’s not about the climate arguments — it’s about our territory. Russia is trying to use all venues to legitimize the illegal annexation,” said Alex Riabchyn, a former Ukraine deputy energy minister who has been part of the Ukrainian delegations to the U.N. climate conferences since 2015. He spoke by phone from Kyiv as he and his family sheltered from Russian missile attacks on his city.

If U.N. members sign off on documents in which Russia includes Crimean emissions as part of its territory, that is a step toward normalizing using force to change borders, Riabchyn said.

“Every single document that doesn’t have footnotes, that doesn’t say Crimea is Ukrainian, is a hybrid diplomacy strategy of Russia to legitimize this,” he said.

Ukrainian policymakers say that their goal is not to look as good they can on climate rankings. Instead, they want U.N. discussions to reflect their legal claims over what the vast majority of the world continues to recognize as Ukrainian land, even if Russia is in possession of the territory.

The smoke billowing up from the chimneys of the Russian-controlled Crimean Titan chemicals factory? Ukrainian pollution, Kyiv says. The carbon dioxide coming from Crimea’s gas-fired power plants? Also Ukrainian. Same as the diesel fuel burned by the Russian tanks and troops dotted across the militarized peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, but neither Ukraine nor the United Nations ever recognized it, and Kyiv says that Crimea’s emissions are still its own.

“Crimea is Ukraine,” Ukrainian Environmental Protection Minister Ruslan Strilets said in an interview. “The absolute majority of countries of the world support Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

The dispute over Crimea’s emissions started in 2016, when Russia first included data from the peninsula in a report about its climate footprint that countries regularly submit to U.N. bodies. In internal U.N. working documents that note the Russian report, Ukraine successfully demanded that a footnote be added that references three U.N. resolutions that support Ukraine’s claim to Crimea, Ukrainian negotiators said. But they failed in their effort to get the Russian reports rejected altogether when they include the Crimean numbers.

Kyiv kept including estimates of Crimea’s emissions in its own annual reports, leading to a double count. Neither country breaks out greenhouse gas emissions by region in its reports, making it difficult to compare the accounting.

A U.N. effort that compiles the national reports to come up with a comprehensive global emissions figure has been delayed since 2017 amid the dispute. Officials say that the U.N. report would be helpful to track global emissions data but that there are other ways to watch the numbers and that the dispute is not holding back broader efforts to reduce emissions.

Strilets said that even though bureaucratic disagreements over data and reports might seem dry, they have real-world security consequences. He said that some international climate policymakers had in the past asked Ukraine to separate climate issues from the broader political dispute by dropping its objections to including Crimea data in Russian figures. Those policymakers argued that an accurate, real-world count of global emissions was more important within the world of climate diplomacy, the minister said.

That emboldened Putin ahead of the invasion this year, Strilets said.

“These calls made in peacetime, they actually stimulated him to start the war,” he said.

Strilets declined to call out any one culprit by name.

But policymakers said that U.N. officials themselves could be a challenge.

“We spend huge amounts of time persuading the U.N. secretariat to follow the U.N. resolutions,” said Riabchyn, the former deputy energy minister.

“They’ve asked us to be constructive and to compromise on climate issues and said that there are many disputed political issues all over the world,” he said. “We managed somehow to persuade them.”

Strilets said that after this year’s invasion, he hopes there will be fewer challenges to Ukraine’s objections to the Russian numbers.

“Now that everyone has seen the real threat to human lives and the threat to the security of the whole of Europe, I think that the authors of such statements calling us not to focus on politics, they will think twice before making them,” Strilets said.

U.N. officials said that they have tried to facilitate a compromise between the two sides and that how to uphold climate treaties is ultimately the responsibility of the countries that have signed on to them.

“It is common for all kinds of disputes and disagreements in our process that attempts are made to bring forward a compromise,” said Marianne Karlsen, the Norwegian climate official who since 2019 has been chair of the U.N. body charged with collecting and tallying the emissions numbers.

“With the covid situation in 2020-21 and the escalation of the conflict in 2021,” she said, “my approach has been that I propose deferring the issues, given that an outlook for a solution is not realistic given the current circumstances. Parties have agreed to this approach.”

She said she expects the same thing will happen in Egypt next month.

“Deferring items for consideration is never a positive thing to do in the UNFCCC process,” she said, referring to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Let me again reiterate that the situation for the reporting is of course unfortunate and that I hope that a solution is found.”

A spokesman for the UNFCCC, Alexander Saier, said in a written response to questions that the U.N. practice is to publish the national climate reports “as received” and that there was no specific guidance about what to put in the reports. He said that although it was “unfortunate” that the global emissions report was on hold as a result of the dispute, “the issue of aggregate global emissions is being considered by Parties across a range of other agenda items.”

The battle over Crimean emissions is not the only geopolitical conflict to make its way into the technical, number-pushing world of climate negotiations, but it is a rare case in which rivals are competing to take credit for something noxious. China claims Taiwan as its own, but it doesn’t include emissions from the highly industrialized island in its official climate numbers. Since Beijing also blocks Taiwan from taking part in international climate talks, the result is a Taiwan-size hole in carbon tallies, nearly 1 percent of global emissions.

Britain and Argentina have also battled over who claims the emissions from the disputed Falkland Islands, over which the countries fought a war in 1982. Most of those greenhouse gases come from belching sheep. But Argentina does not include emissions from the islands in its own reporting, confining its objections to some sharp language about British occupation in what it sends to the United Nations.

“For many states, the U.N. offers a place to defend their territorial claims even when they cannot control the actual territories at stake,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the International Crisis Group. “U.N. membership has always been seen as a sort of guarantee against annexations and states disappearing.”

Climate negotiators say that the dispute between Ukraine and Russia has not spread into the core business of U.N. talks, which involve issues that range from how to reduce global emissions and deforestation to how the rich world can support the developing world’s climate efforts. Instead, the negotiators said, the fight is mostly confined to “set pieces” — the scripted statements that delegates read during moments when each country gets a chance to announce its positions — and to the emissions numbers.

The U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday approved a new U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory by a vote of 143-5, with 35 abstentions. That vote will give Ukraine the backing it needs if Russia extends its emissions claims — although many of the countries that abstained are the African, Latin American and Asian nations that are most threatened by climate change.

Russia, for its part, files an annual objection to the Ukrainian numbers, saying that Crimea is part of Russia and that it recognizes Russian-backed territories in eastern Ukraine as independent. Ukrainian leaders expect that Russian authorities will expand their emissions claims after Putin annexed further Ukrainian territory this month.

Neither the Kremlin nor Russia’s environmental monitoring service responded to a request for comment.

Under U.N. emissions rules, countries do not need to include military operations in their greenhouse gas reporting — a significant omission given that armed forces are major emitters during both peacetime and war. Nations agreed at climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, last year to create an option to report their military emissions, but it remains optional. Those talks coincided with the Russian force buildup that was the prelude to the invasion.

Ukraine’s emissions since the war began in February have fallen dramatically, a measure of the human and economic devastation wrought by nearly eight months of conflict.

Strilets’s ministry estimates that the war has resulted in 31 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions — about the same as Sweden’s annual figures — and that the reconstruction of the infrastructure and buildings destroyed by the war will result in an additional 79 million metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, about the same as Greece’s annual emissions. And it has led to about $35 billion in environmental damage, Strilets said — a figure that changes by the hour.

“Our team works every day and we count new damages, but we don’t have enough time to calculate them,” Strilets said. “We do it as quickly as possible, but these figures are changing every day.”

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