The Law That Shapes Us: "The Ticking Fossil Bomb - Examining the Ramifications of the Russian War on Ukraine on the Climate Change Regime"

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Dr Ievgeniia Kopytsia, Research Fellow, discusses the Russian War on Ukraine for the project The Law That Shapes Us. 

As reported by the Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2023 marked a sobering milestone - average global temperatures rose over 1.5°C for the first time. Alongside the latest study from January 2024, a grim picture emerges: we remain off-track to meet Paris Agreement goals, with projected warming now surpassing 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 if emissions continue unabated. The narrow chance remains to correct course by radically transforming global energy systems. As the brutal Russian war on Ukraine continues to demonstrate the broader implications of climate inaction and fossil fuel dependence, threatening geopolitical, economic, energy and climate security, it looks like we are losing the chance.

Does this signal the inadequacy of international climate governance? How has the war in Ukraine revealed the inadequacy of existing international frameworks to respond to heightened climate-security intersections being unveiled in this poly-crisis era?

In this blog, Dr Ievgeniia Kopytsia, a Visiting Academic of the Law Faculty at the University of Oxford and an Associate of Oxford Net Zero, provides crucial contextual insights into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regime and emphasizes key opportunities to enhance support for nations enduring conflicts.

Reflecting on COP28: Bitter Fossil Aftertaste

Jumpstarted with the long-awaited launch of a Loss and Damage Fund, COP28, the largest and arguably most discussed Conference of Parties, concluded the first Global Stocktake, a comprehensive assessment of global progress on the full scope of climate issues to date accompanied by ambitious pledges to triple global renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, peak global emissions by 2025, significantly scale up adaptation finance and prepare economy-wide NDCs.

But most importantly, for the first time in 28 years of UN climate negotiations, the COP28 final agreement- UAEConsensus including calling on nations to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner… so as to achieve net zero by 2050...”

Referred by some as a historic moment, COP28 was announced to mark the ‘beginning of the end for the fossil fuels era’. However, one should keep in mind that COP decisions, as well as pledges and declarations, are not legally binding, and their implementation into national policies and revised NDC submissions relies heavily on the political discretion of individual countries.

Merely two months after the conclusion, the concerns over the loopholes posed by the ambiguity of the COP28 final agreement are coming true. None of the major historical emitters is implementing policies to move away from fossil fuels but actively expanding production. Canada is launching the $23.05 billion expansion project to triple the flow of crude oil to 890,000 barrels per day, the UAE state oil company ADNOC is expanding its oil production capacity from four million barrels a day (bpd) to 5 million bpd by 2027 and the UK is adopting Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill to boost oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

Thus, the critical imperative remains the adoption of precise and effective national climate laws and policies to facilitate the transition to net zero.
Dr Ievgeniia Kopytsia

Despite the increasing number of climate-winning legal cases, such as the Oslo district court decision from 18 January 2024, challenging the legitimacy and legality of fossil fuel extraction, this is not merely an easy task. Implementation of states' obligations in addressing the climate crisis should happen in the context of decreasing geological stability, ongoing energy crises, and businesses pushing back on commitments despite the research-proven economic benefits of the green transition.

Assessing Resilience of the UNFCCC Regime Through the Lense of War in Ukraine

The Ukrainian case underscores the challenges within current climate governance structures. In particular, Ukraine faces a unique set of circumstances, grappling with ongoing war and an unprecedented reconstruction challenge. As of 31 December 2023, recovery and reconstruction needs are estimated at almost US$486 billion. Rebuilding nearly half of its energy infrastructure and a substantial portion of its industrial assets presents a transformative endeavour unlike that of most other nations. Therefore, the key critical question arises: Can the UNFCCC effectively facilitate Ukraine's green transition, and what specific areas and actions are essential to ensure it?

The response to this question is multifaceted. Initially, the classification of Ukraine as a developed country within the UNFCCC, driven by historical considerations, introduces a nuanced challenge. This restricts Ukraine's access to specific instruments outlined by the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, such as the Green Climate Fund, Least Developed Country Fund, and the Special Climate Change Fund—resources currently unavailable to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine's per capita GDP, particularly post-war, will likely place it lower than many lower-middle-income and even lower-income countries classified as developing nations globally. Despite the Global Environment Facility allocating funds at a limited scale, it is evident that the existing framework, based on a paradigm from three decades ago, no longer aligns with the contemporary need for global decarbonization and the unique national circumstances in countries like Ukraine, particularly amid the challenges of the war. While calls for recalibration are increasing, this process is gradual, necessitating the exploration of regional or national solutions in the interim.

Conversely, as a developed country, Ukraine is obligated to accelerate its climate action efforts beyond those of developing nations, aiming for emissions neutrality by the mid-century. Here, the Paris Agreement plays a crucial role in guiding Ukraine toward a trajectory where reconstruction prioritises green, sustainable, and low-emission practices.
Ievgeniia Kopytsia

Ukraine's commitment to climate action amid the war illustrates that sustainable practices can indeed contribute to recovery and development, emphasising that prioritizing climate action is not only an environmental imperative but also a pathway to a more resilient, prosperous, and sustainable future for nations emerging from conflict.

A significant yet still overlooked issue is the omission of military and conflict-related emissions within the UNFCCC process as well as climate accountability of the aggressor state for climate damages. The exclusion of military emissions and wartime climate damages from UNFCCC accounting is a glaring omission that the Ukraine conflict has laid bare. International climate agreements lack binding reporting and reduction requirements for defiance forces specifically. As a result, reliable and complete data on military carbon footprints remains scarce. This data gap allows the major climate impacts of military operations, arms production, and conflicts to go uncounted in most nations' official reporting. With no mandated climate accountability, the Russian military faces little incentive to curb its vast greenhouse gas output as the Ukraine invasion drags on. Nor is the Kremlin compelled to fund Ukraine's immense costs of recovering from deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure. This upside-down situation threatens to stall climate progress.

Ukraine map

As the UN scrambles to support Ukraine's reconstruction, existing frameworks offer no clear means to hold aggressor nations accountable for war-related GHG emissions. One viable approach is formulating a liability mechanism under the UNFCCC regime to formally assess and attribute responsibility. Russia’s war on Ukraine is estimated to have contributed 150 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent as of September 2023 — inflicting $9.6 billion in global climate damages. This wartime carbon deluge breaches the shared goal underpinning the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): stabilizing greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. Integrating these quantified climate harms into the Warsaw Mechanism’s registry on losses and damages would enable tracked valuation and claims for wartime climatic losses. Specifically, costs linked to Russia’s war-driven emission surges could become documented, valued, and claimed based on global damage estimates. Constructing formal attribution and liability frameworks through UNFCCC technical processes or loss and damage registries can help deter environmentally destructive warfare. Binding polluter pays principles to conflicts which delay climate action would promote accountability. Formalizing climate damages from wars like Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine into UN registries would allow the global community to both reclaim and deter costs.

Beyond quantified damages, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed more profound deeper flaws undermining decisive global climate action. Within the UNFCCC, formal expulsion of aggressor states lacks precedent and procedures. Yet at COP28 climate talks, Russia advocated the use of "transitional fuels" like natural gas as viable options for emission reductions while resisting calls to phase down fossil fuels. When major emitters and petrostates undermine UNFCCC principles, they face little accountability. Russia’s weaponisation of energy exports and greenwashing of gas supply Northwest illustrates the need to recalibrate rules.  With respect to UNFCCC 's emphasis on inclusivity, integrating ad-hoc measures to discourage bad-faith engagement could incentivise constructive participation. Warning labels for delegations with documented histories of hindering climate initiatives may deter intentional obstructionism and restricting negotiators from aggressor states from leading working groups or panels may limit the damage.

From Battleground to Climate Vanguard:  Ukraine’s Green Reconstruction Challenge

Energy transition in Ukraine is not just a national concern but a significant component of the global climate agenda. On COP28 Ukraine reaffirmed its deep commitment to achieving net zero, phasing out coal by 2035 and supporting the global ambition to triple renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements. The Ukrainian government presented scenarios and plans for decarbonisation of its energy system based on decentralised renewables, the case of 450 million euros of private financing attracted for the development of wind energy and Ukraine's ambition to emerge as a "green energy hub" of Europe.  

While clarity regarding Ukraine's commitment is paramount, the most significant challenge is that Ukraine has to rebuild quickly and whether this can be executed in a ‘green’ manner aligned with climate goals and net zero targets is the foremost question.

According to the Third Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment, direct damage has reached almost US$152 billion, with housing, transport, commerce and industry, agriculture, and energy the most affected sectors. Meanwhile, recovery and reconstruction needs within an optimistic 10-year period foresee the inclusion of critical steps for short-term recovery as well as medium-term reconstruction that builds back better to modern and climate-resilient standards. 


I strongly believe that green, inclusive, low-carbon, and sustainable post-war reconstruction for Ukraine is feasible. Furthermore, it is crucial to emphasise that reconstruction efforts are already underway. Following Russia's destructive actions against Ukraine's centralised power grid and coal power plants during the winter of 2022-2023, Ukrainian communities proactively embraced the development of innovative energy systems.
Ievgeniia Kopytsia

Leveraging solar, wind and energy storage technologies is enabling critical facilities such as hospitals, water pumping stations as well as schools to operate resiliently and reduce vulnerability to disruption from rocket attacks. This highlights the significance of prioritising a reconstruction strategy centred around renewables, which not only enhances energy security but also accelerates the transition towards long-term net-zero goals. 

However, a tailored national approach and international guidance are needed. In July 2022, during a head-of-states conference in Lugano, Switzerland, the government of Ukraine presented the initial version of its 10-year national recovery plan, outlining proposed recovery pathways for major sectors. While centred around “building back better” principles, the Plan contained a significant loophole risking amplified emissions and climate vulnerabilities - the expanded gas production and offshore extraction. Unless integrated with equitable and sustainable transition mechanisms, these fossil fuel investments could strand assets, increase carbon intensity, and expose Ukraine to heightened climate impacts in the medium to long term.

Smoke from city

Additionally, little can be achieved without international financial and institutional support. For this purpose, for instance, the €50 billion Ukraine Facility Programme must be leveraged to guarantee sustainable and just green transition in all economic sectors by catalysing equitable decarbonisation, resilient infrastructure, and robust environmental safeguards. Prioritising climate-aligned investments will help secure Ukraine's self-sufficiency, prosperity, and political sovereignty over the long term.

On the level of the UNFCCC regime, the new collective quantified goal for climate funding for 2024, discussed at COP28, must address the requirements for both rapid recoveries during the war and long-term post-war reconstruction, supporting post-conflict regions and aiding these nations in rebuilding destroyed assets and infrastructure in alignment with the Build Back Better principles.

Through Fire to Innovation: How Ukraine's Resilience Points the Way to New Climate Horizons

The global climate crisis, exacerbated by geopolitical tensions and conflicts like the Russian war on Ukraine, underscores the urgent need for comprehensive and decisive international action. Despite historic agreements like COP28's UAEConsensus, the implementation of climate commitments remains inadequate, with fossil fuel interests hindering progress toward net-zero emissions.

The two following COPs will hold crucial significance for global climate efforts. COP29 will be tasked with formulating a new climate finance goal while COP30 will be updating states’ NDCs. As the international community gathers to set ambitious goals, it is imperative to integrate considerations for vulnerable nations like Ukraine, ensuring a collective commitment to a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient future.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s experience showcases the importance of interlinked strategies targeting the interplay between building community climate resilience, phasing out fossil fuel dependence, and enabling locally managed, people-centred infrastructure.

Ultimately, building back better and greener in Ukraine and other conflict-affected regions is not just a matter of environmental imperative but a critical component of national, regional, and global security.
Ievgeniia Kopytsia

When the EU focuses on climate change mitigation through renewables investment and fossil fuel phaseouts as a key priority, the green recovery and reconstruction process is firmly embedded in Ukraine’s EU accession path. In 2022, Ukraine has synchronised its power grid with continental Europe, which opens up opportunities for Ukraine to transition to renewable energy and engage in clean energy exchange with the European Union. Aligning with the REPowerEU plan and the European Green Deal, Ukraine has passed legislation to promote energy storage systems and enable the direct sale of renewable power in energy markets by holding 'green' auctions to add new solar and wind energy capacities.

While the EU framework represents a new generation of green policy and law that will require significant financial and legislative support to make the necessary transformation, Ukraine has already taken the right steps forward. Remarkably, Ukraine has installed 100 per cent more new onshore wind power since the start of the war than the UK over the same period. Constructed just 60 miles from the frontline, the new Tyligulska wind power plant provides enough clean electricity to power about 200,000 homes in the southern region of Mykolaiv. Accelerating deployments of solar and wind can support Ukraine in achieving its target of 30% renewable electricity by 2030, aligning ambitions with leading European nations.

With the right investments and partnerships, Ukraine can become a role model, demonstrating that decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions is possible even in the most extreme circumstances.

Ukraine's stand lights the uncompromising truth - we already possess every needed renewable solution but lack only political courage to deploy them. Progress cannot wait for perfect systems - only committed people lead from where they stand.