For the first time in history, Ukraine has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and saying goodbye to coal. With the planet already 1.1°C warmer compared to the pre-industrial era, climate negotiations in Glasgow became an endurance test for global efforts to keep the rise in temperatures at a relatively safe level of 1.5°C. For Ukraine, this means modernising the economy, insulating buildings, and transforming whole regions where life revolves around coal.
Ambitions and challenges
July 2021 was hot. It officially became the hottest month ever recorded on earth. Residents of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and many other cities around the country had to get used to regular temperatures of above 30°C. Apart from the extreme heat, July brought a ray of hope for the future as Ukraine’s government approved a new national climate target, the so-called Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement.
Within the coming decade, Ukraine promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% from 1990 levels (that is, by seven percent from 2019 levels). The biggest emission cuts are expected to come from the energy and related sectors as the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy speeds up.
The country stated it was ready to join the global fight against climate change and global warming.
A few months later, during the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Ukraine joined an international Powering Past Coal Alliance and promised to phase out coal in electricity generation during the 2030s. The news was celebrated by the international community and came as a surprise to many in Ukraine. Although the country’s coal mining towns and civil society had long demanded clarity from the government regarding the future of coal, the announced timeline had not been discussed within the country. Furthermore, two separate coal phase-out dates were declared by the government (2035) and Ukraine’s largest private player in the energy sector DTEK (2040), owned by the country’s wealthiest oligarch. The two dates bring more questions than answers.
Although the announcements are not obligatory for implementation, they may nevertheless be deemed historic. Today, as much as a quarter of electricity in Ukraine is still produced from coal. The majority of power plants are an old Soviet legacy in need of complete replacement rather than modernisation. The announcements signal that Ukraine is about to begin a complicated but necessary transition from a fossil-based to clean energy-based economy.
Worst-case climate scenario
Ukraine has many reasons to start urgently decarbonising and adapting to the warming climate. They range from purely political and economic motives to those related to the well-being of the population and preservation of the environment.
While some sectors of the economy, some cities, and some communities may already feel various effects of climate change and be affected by climate mitigation policies, the future brings ever more uncertainty. Notwithstanding national and global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the world is still moving toward at least 3°C warming by the end of the century in comparison to pre-industrial levels. The worst-case scenario for Ukraine means more frequent droughts, extreme weather events, and flooded coastline regions. With the rise in sea levels expected to reach 0.8 metres by the end of the century, 200,000 hectares of agricultural lands may be flooded and 75,000 people are at risk of becoming climate refugees.
Yet, social surveys show that Ukrainians are much less worried by climate change (only 17% of the population are concerned about it) than by other local environmental issues.
Meanwhile, the population is mostly worried about water pollution (70%), air pollution (55%), deforestation (63%), and poor waste management (42%).
Most of these local issues, however, are linked in one way or another to the climate emergency. Air pollution, just like the climate crisis, is largely caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, whether by industry, transport, or power plants. As the most precious natural carbon sinks, forests absorb large amounts of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Their destruction (as in the case of illegal timber export abroad) or revival (e.g. through the expansion of official nature conservation and protection sites) defines how well Ukraine can adapt and mitigate climate change impact. Water pollution is largely linked to poor industrial and agricultural practices, and fixing these would also help to reduce emissions. In order to respond to Ukrainians’ ecological demands, focus on climate and environment has to become an integral part of national development planning by both national and municipal authorities.
Life after coal
There are certain regions around the country whose path for development is directly linked to the use of the dirtiest of fossil fuels: coal.
As Ukraine starts decreasing its reliance on coal in the energy sector, communities in mining regions will be among the most vulnerable to the new climate policies.
Without a planned strategy for replacing the power generation and coal mining industry, more than 50,000 people will lose their jobs, while the local fossil fuel-based economy may collapse. Addressing these challenges, all the coal mining towns of Ukraine’s Donetsk region (within the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government) united into a Platform for Sustainable Development to work together on a common vision for the region’s transformation, including green projects and initiatives. They are setting an inspiring example for other communities around the world that face similar issues.
If the transition is well planned and just, there might yet be a silver lining to this story. A recent study conducted jointly by German and Ukrainian research institutes shows that Ukraine can aim at a complete replacement of coal by renewable power generation by as early as 2030. The energy transition is not only possible from an economic and technical standpoint but may also create three times more jobs in the new green energy sector than the number of the jobs lost.
As many Soviet-era power plants will be reaching the end of their lifespan within the coming decade, the power sector will require new investments to rehabilitate or replace aging assets. The green growth opportunity is there, knocking on the door.
Thorny path ahead
In 2021, in addition to the new climate goal, Ukraine’s government approved a strategy of environmental protection and adaptation to climate change which outlines, among other things, the measures needed to adapt the country to potential extreme weather events and flooding. However, this is yet another official document that needs to be put into action.
Since the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14, Ukraine has made certain progress in implementing several important climate policies such as improving energy efficiency in buildings and developing renewable energy. But this is clearly not enough to make a visible difference in the everyday life of Ukrainians. Climate change policy must ensure a just transition to a green economy that takes into account each and every citizen. Although the path ahead is thorny, Ukraine is definitely ready to innovate and take on the most complicated tasks. The question is: how quickly will we understand that the time to act has already come?
Anna Ackermann is a climate and energy policy specialist at Ecoaction – Centre for Environmental Initiatives, Ukraine.
Photo: Oleksiy Tolmachov, Khortytsia after Fire.