The War On My Homeland Offers a Real Chance To Save the Planet
Stopping Putin's Fossil-fueled War Could Accelerate a Green Transition
Some days ago, I left my home in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine to make my way to Sweden. There I will address the United Nations’ Stockholm +50 International Meeting on the Human Environment, opening June 2nd. I will do so on behalf of Stand With Ukraine, a coalition of 45 Ukrainian organizations and networks, supported by hundreds more worldwide. Our message: “End the global fossil-fuel addiction that fuels Putin’s war machine.”
The Russian invasion of our country is funded and fueled by the coal, oil and gas industries that also drive the climate crisis. The import of all fossil fuels from Russia must be banned, as must any investment in Russia. This is urgent and necessary, to stop the existential threat to my nation. But it is just the beginning. We need to phase out all fossil fuels globally if we are to stop the existential threat to our planet.
As a Ukrainian, it is very difficult for me that the planet-saving transition to clean energy might come, finally, at a cost that has been paid by my compatriots with their lives and the devastation of our country. But perhaps because I live on the frontline, I see clearly that this is a decisive point in modern history. We can make the wrong turn back to fossil-fueled colonialism. Or we can properly start the green transition. The fight for Ukraine’s freedom can lead us to what science has told us we must do: stop burning coal, oil, and gas right now.
You need only do the math of war to see that Putin’s aggression is fossil-fueled. He earns one billion euros a day from the gas he sells to Europe, and he spends 900 million euros a day attempting to bombard my country into either submission or oblivion. Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed and millions displaced. Cities have been destroyed. Our economy has been shattered, but not our national spirit. It was deeply moving to hear our heroic president, Volodomyr Zelensky, relay the message of the Stand With Ukraine campaign to Joe Biden, when the American president visited Kyiv—and to hear Biden respond with an embargo of all Russian fossil fuel products.
Of course it is harder for Europe to follow suit, given that it depends on Russian fossil fuels for 40 percent of its energy needs. But rather than using this opportunity to lead a green transformation globally, the EU is simply looking to replace Russian fossil-fuels with non-Russian ones. This will accelerate the climate crisis, which is a crisis for all the world’s citizens—Ukrainians included. And it will further embolden the tyrants who draw their power from fossil fuels. As we know from conflicts in the Middle East, the outrageous invasion of my country is not the first fossil-fueled war; if we do not act urgently, it will not be the last.
These months of war have fully exposed Europe’s dependence on fossil fuel imports—and its lack of political willpower to lead the green revolution globally. It is moving far more quickly to mobilize oil and gas reserves worldwide than it is to ban Russian fossil fuels outright. Europe might claim it needs to do this for its own energy security, but there is more than enough evidence that this is not true. One key study has found that “clean energy and energy efficiency can replace two thirds of [Europe’s] Russian gas imports by 2025”.
Last week, the EU released a new strategy that calls on North American, African, and Gulf countries to open up new gas supplies to replace Russian fossil fuels. The EU has also proposed legislation that claims to promote climate neutrality—but actually promotes fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear power as environmentally sustainable. After Stockholm +50, I will meet law-makers in an attempt to persuade them that this legislation, if passed, will encourage European companies to invest their resources in fossil-fuel and nuclear energy, rather than shift to renewables.
The European hunger to find non-Russian sources for its fossil-fuel addiction goes hand-in-hand with another troubling phenomenon: the way the industry and its lobby are concocting schemes to profit off this war. Since the war started, there has been a barrage of petro-propaganda making the case for reversing canceled projects and expanding deregulation in the name of energy security. It began on day one of the Russian attack, when the American Petroleum Institute issued a cynical statement that “American energy leadership” stood ready to “serve as a stabilizing force while strengthening global energy security.” In the first quarter of 2022, the top 20 U.S- based oil and gas companies reported $30.3 billion in profits—a 155 percent increase from the first quarter of 2021. It’s easy to see what drives them.
To this, we Ukrainians have a clear response to the fossil-fuel industry and the politicians on its payroll: do not use the pain and suffering of our people to double down on production, while deploying a “peace-washing” rhetoric that makes it seem as if you are, in fact, helping the world free itself from Russian tyranny. Fossil fuels themselves, like the missiles they finance, are weapons of mass destruction.
Freedom from the tyranny of energy dependency goes hand-in-hand with democracy, transparency, and accountability. In Ukraine, our own budding climate movement was strengthened by the 2014 democratic revolution, and in recent years, we have had notable success. These include some powerful commitments towards renewable energy transition from the state and from some cities.
Before the war, my very last public activity was in the city of Vinnytsia, where I helped develop a Green Deal Roadmap. On January 28, the city’s leaders signed a declaration that they would voluntarily implement the terms of the European Green Deal, with an ambitious program to take the city towards climate neutrality. This was the first Ukranian city to do so, and others seemed set to follow. How heartbreaking it was, then, to wake up on the morning of February 24th, just four weeks later, and realize that such progress was halted—and might even be reversed—by the need to defend ourselves against an invading force.
Perhaps I understand Ukraine’s current struggle in the context of global climate justice because of the work I have been doing in the past year, for the Catholic social justice movement Laudato, Si. Here I have met the people—from Argentina, from East and Southern Africa, from Asia—who are sitting on the “carbon bombs” the fossil fuel industry is itching to exploit, now that there is a gap in the market created by embargoes against Russia.
It has meant much to receive messages of solidarity from many of these people—people who face their own conflicts, and who are often writing from places where they too are very unsafe. This has reminded me about how we are all unsafe in this fossil-fueled world. My country, of course, is extremely important to me—I want to see it rebuilt from the war very soon, rebuilt in green. But this war, more than ever, has reinforced something that knits our global climate movement together: there are no strangers, for us, on this planet.
I will return, soon, to Ivano-Frankivsk from my travels. We are in western Ukraine, so our city has not been destroyed by missiles—although we have had a few explosions and live with the constant threat of more. Our city has swelled with our compatriots who have fled from the east; we do our best to make life as comfortable as possible for them. Many of our men are away in the military. Our small businesses are trying desperately to stay afloat. The fuel crisis means we cannot operate our vehicles. This gets in the way of the most banal of daily tasks—a sign of how dependent we have become on the toxic substance that fuels the war.
When I left, it was spring. Flowers were blooming and the trees were spouting their early green, too. When I return, the green will be deeper summer-green. Nature does not recognize war, and this consoles me. It also upsets me: that the seasonal cycle might lull us into thinking everything is alright. It won’t be, unless we act now. Nature might not recognize war, but it does respond to global warming, in ways that are increasingly violent and unpredictable.
Svitlana Romanko is a Ukraine-based climate activist and environmental lawyer who has worked with 350.org, and Laudato, Si Movement. She launched and coordinates the Stand With Ukraine campaign.
This is the first of a two-part series of Dispatches from the East European frontlines. Next, Polish climate activist Kamila Kadzidłowska writes about her journey as a mother who refuses to sit by while her children fall ill due to coal pollution every winter, and what the Ukraine war has done to climate activism in the region.
This Dispatch originally appeared in The Nation.