The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused catastrophic loss of life, widespread displacement, and a growing global food crisis

The conflict has also extensively harmed Ukraine’s natural environment, highlighting the many ways in which war devastates biodiversity and contributes to the climate crisis. 

Advocates and organizers within Ukraine have documented hundreds of environmental crimes that together, they argue, warrant the charge of ecocide by international courts. These crimes include attacks on industrial facilities that contaminate groundwater supplies and airways and the deliberate bombing of wildlife refuges and other important ecosystems.

With each additional day of warfare, Ukraine’s ability to recover its vibrant society and environment wanes, and its capacity for transitioning to an economy that excludes fossil fuels shrinks. 

In recent years, a growing narrative has argued that the climate crisis is a national security threat that demands military investments. But while a deteriorating environment does, in fact, threaten people, few things fuel the crisis quite like war, which props up the global fossil fuel industry by locking in oil, gas, and coal demand, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS).  

War also inevitably entails destruction, resulting in widespread toxic substances, dead wildlife, and an atmosphere choked with fumes. 

3 Key Facts About How War Impacts the Climate Crisis and the Environment

  • Militaries consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels, which contributes directly to global warming. If the US military were a country, for example, it would have the 47th highest emissions total worldwide. 
  • Bombings and other methods of modern warfare directly harm wildlife and biodiversity. The collateral damage of conflict can kill up to 90% of large animals in an area. 
  • Pollution from war contaminates bodies of water, soil, and air, making areas unsafe for people to inhabit. 

Warfare Releases Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The world’s militaries account for an estimated 6% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and many governments don’t even report data on emissions from military activities, according to the Guardian

“Those that do often report partial figures,” Dr. Stuart Parkinson, executive director of the Scientists for Global Responsibility, told the Guardian. “So figures for military aircraft could be hidden under ‘aviation,’ military tech industry under ‘industry,’ military bases under ‘public buildings,’ etc. Indeed, it’s not just the public who are unaware, the policymakers are also unaware, and even the researchers.”

Even in peacetime, militaries consume extreme amounts of dirty energy. The US Department of Defense’s 566,000 buildings, for example, account for 40% of its fossil fuel use. These include training facilities, dormitories, manufacturing plants, and other buildings on the department’s nearly 800 bases worldwide. In countries like Switzerland and the United Kingdom, defense ministries similarly consume the most fossil fuels among government agencies. Other countries with massive militaries like China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Israel do not report their emissions totals, but the pattern is expected to be the same.  

As countries worldwide give more money to their militaries, fossil fuel use rises both with and without conflict. And while simply maintaining a military contributes to climate change, active warfare maximizes this potential. 

The US and allied forces, for example, have fired more than 337,000 bombs and missiles on other countries over the past 20 years, according to Salon. The jets carrying those weapons can burn through 4.28 gallons of gasoline per mile, with each detonation releasing additional greenhouse gas emissions, and destroying natural carbon sinks like soil, vegetation, and trees. 

The US’ broader “War on Terror” has released 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University, which has more of a warming effect on the planet than the annual emissions of 257 million cars. 

If the US military were itself a country, it would have the 47th highest emissions total worldwide, greater than the countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal overall. 

War Causes Pollution

The environmental impact of war is far more immediate than greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere.

Pollution, in particular, is immediately felt by people stuck in conflict zones who have to contend with unsafe air, water, and soil.

People in Afghanistan, in addition to the nonstop pollution caused by bombs, have been exposed to open-air burn pits used by the army to dispose of waste. The resulting fumes from these pits have led to increases in cancer rates for both veterans and locals. 

Waste management in general tends to collapse during conflict, and it's not uncommon for households to burn household trash and dump human waste in bodies of water and unlined holes.

All of the tanks and heavy vehicles driving around in conflicts kick up abrasive particles, while discarded ammunition leaks uranium into water systems, according to CEOBS.

The vacuums of power created by war can lead to illegal competition over natural resources, according to the United Nations, with examples including illegal logging, the intentional setting of forest fires to clear land, and the extraction of precious minerals using highly toxic methods. 

In Colombia, rebel groups have engaged in illegal mining that filled bodies of water with mercury

In the Vietnam War, the US army took a “scorched-earth” form of chemical warfare that destroyed landscapes with substances like “Agent Orange” that still impact people to this day.  

Warfare in urban areas, like what’s happening in Ukraine right now, causes extensive damage to buildings, roads, and infrastructure, which can fill the air with debris and rubble, making it much harder to breathe. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also featured attacks on facilities that process dangerous chemicals such as ammonia, which has threatened the safety of nearby communities. 

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has continuously bombed infrastructure like desalination plants, dams, and reservoirs, depriving communities of easy access to water. 

Marine ecosystems are not shielded from this pollution. In fact, warships release extreme amounts of waste into bodies of water, degrading marine habitats and coastlines. 

Even during peacetime, military testing exercises and manufacturing leads to widespread pollution. The world’s militaries occupy around 1% to 6% of all land, according to CEOBS. On these lands, they face little environmental regulation and experiment with chemicals that are banned in many places. 

War Destroys Wildlife and Biodiversity

It’s never been calculated how much wildlife is lost to war — the animals killed, the plant life incinerated, the endless biodiversity erased. 

But some of the approximations are mind-blowing. The number of large animals present in an area can decline by up to 90% during human conflict, and even a single year of warfare causes long-term wildlife loss, according to a study published in Nature.  

Another study found that the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique lost 95% of its biodiversity after a long civil war. 

During the Vietnam War, more than 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of farmland were destroyed. Lush marshlands in Iraq were reduced to 10% of their historic size after former President Saddam Hussein ordered major rivers stopped to squash an uprising. Afghanistan has lost nearly 95% of its forest cover in recent decades. 

And years after a war, landmines can continue to explode and kill wildlife

Conservationists have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to war to prevent the demise of ecosystems that are essential to our collective well-being, whether it’s forests, grasslands, or bodies of water. Other advocates of peace note that environmental destruction becomes fuel for more war, as it deprives people and community of essential resources and ways of life. 

The climate crisis itself has been labeled a threat to global security, but ending war and securing peace is the surest way to protect both ourselves and the planet.  

What Can Global Citizens Do to Help?

Global Citizens can call on their governments to pursue peace and the end of conflicts worldwide by addressing root causes, while also taking steps to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and support a just transition that focuses more on people’s well-being than violence. 

You can take action with us here and demand climate action now.

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

How War Impacts Climate Change and the Environment

By Joe McCarthy