(In light of the war events, this article has been updated compared to the version appeared on ICN’s website on February 15)

In the weeks immediately preceding the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian territory, many newspapers and analysts have focused on Kiev’s role as the preferred transit country for much of the gas imported each year by the European Union – Ukraine is in fact the country that transmits the most natural gas globally. However, little attention has been paid to the Ukrainian energy situation, both domestic and international, and to the role that the country, now disrupted by conflict, has played in domestic and international climate and energy policies. 

Until the mid-1980s, Ukrainian emissions amounted to a third of those in present-day Russia. In the country’s peak emission year of 1985, Ukrainian industry had already emitted 17.22 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, compared to 54.33 billion tonnes from Russia, with both countries being part of the then Soviet Union (source: Our World in Data). In short, a production and emission giant, which for geopolitical reasons already enjoyed a special status within the USSR together with Belarus since – unlike all the other individual Soviet republics – it had its own seat at the United Nations as an independent republic.

With the mid-1980s, the economic stagnation and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian industry saw a very rapid decline, together with the country’s annual emissions, which continued to fall steeply until the mid-1990s similarly to all major Warsaw Pact countries at the time, driven by the closure and reconversion of heavy industries. To date, Ukraine has cumulatively emitted 30.56 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s a lot if we consider the size of the national economy and the country’s wealth in both general and per capita terms. This data can be contextualized by making a comparison with Italy, a member of the G7 and G20 and therefore one of the largest economies on the planet, that has so far cumulatively emitted ‘only’ 24.74 billion tonnes of CO2. Ukraine’s data has to be analyzed considering the past massive presence of highly energy-intensive heavy industries in the former member countries of the Soviet Union.

With 213.91 million tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere in 2020, Ukraine is now responsible for 0.61% of global emissions, with figures similar to countries like Argentina or Vietnam (in its peak year, 1985, the country accounted for 3.65% of global emissions, a figure just  below today’s Germany).  

Where do these emissions come from? Ukraine’s energy mix is sufficiently diversified, with no energy source accounting for more than 30% of the total (source: IEA). The largest source of energy production in Ukraine is still coal, which accounts for almost 30% and for which Kiev is dependent for 50% on foreign imports. Coal is used almost entirely to produce electricity. Natural gas, which the country produces, buys and transits, occupies the second place in energy production, with 33% of the total depending on imports from other countries. An important role is played by nuclear energy, which is widely produced thanks to the impressive facility put in place at the time of the Soviet Union and which meets 24% of today’s energy supply. Oil plays a much less central role, with a very small share and almost entirely dependent on imports (83%). The last place is occupied by renewables, registering less than 10% of national energy production (different sources range between 6 and 11%), which derives almost entirely from energy produced by hydroelectric power stations, with little or no wind farms or photovoltaic plants despite the significant improvements of recent years. Overall,  the national energy production covers 65% of the demand for consumption thus a significant degree of energy self-sufficiency is shown by a country unfortunately disrupted by different kinds of tensions: economic (the two crises of 2008, after a decade of growth, and 2017, were very serious), political, now military and geopolitical. 

At the international level, Ukraine is a full member of the UN Climate Convention and has ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, according to Climate Action Tracker data, its domestic climate and energy policies until today are to be considered highly insufficient and certainly too unambitious compared to the Paris targets, in a context of a persistent crisis in the energy sector with the state accumulating debts to pay for energy purchases. The latest update of the Ukrainian NDC, presented in 2021, confirms the goal of climate neutrality by 2060 and an overall reduction in emissions of 65% below 1990 levels by 2030 – as we saw earlier, however, Ukrainian emissions had largely peaked in 1985 and then declined at a rapid pace in subsequent years. The foreseen reductions from 1990 levels have in fact already been achieved, or almost achieved, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet production system in the early 1990s – the text of the NDC itself explicitly states this. While the NDC cannot be regarded as ambitious (by not proposing, in fact, further reductions), we cannot overlook the fact that the country lives under a persistent state of economic, political and military tension.

Could more be done? While we hope a quick and peaceful resolution of the armed conflict with the Russian Federation, the fact remains that, at the UNFCCC level, Ukraine is living in the paradox of its own history:due to its pre-1992 emission and production levels and its membership of the former socialist galaxy, the country is part of Annex I, i.e. of those countries considered economically advanced and responsible for the problem of global warming. Today’s Ukrainian economy is, however, much more similar (in terms of fragility and GDP per capita) to many developing economies, which, by virtue of the UN division of the world into “rich and poor”, are entitled to indicate in their NDC which measures will need external financial support to be implemented (so-called conditionality). Even in a desirable situation of newfound stability, by virtue of its industrial and emissive past, Ukraine would still not be able to indicate measures conditional on international supportnor would it be able to access international funds dedicated to supporting developing countries. 

The current scenario, characterized by tensions and uncertainties, will certainly not help the country to invest public resources in climate policies to the detriment of other expenditure items (such as national defence or reconstruction expenses in the immediate future) nor to attract foreign or private capital in the short term.

By Jacopo Bencini, Policy Advisor

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