Written by 11:00 am European Union

The Green Dream to Rebuild a Sustainable Ukraine from the Rubble of War

The parallels between post-war Europe and Ukraine are many. Like Europe at the time, Ukraine will need additional manpower and a cascade of funds to reconstruct an economy in tatters, said Williams. Case in point: architects accounted for a mere 0.08 percent of Ukraine’s total population before the war (compared to 0.25 percent in the larger EU), far too few for the country to rebuild on its own, the National Union of Architects of Ukraine’s Lidiia Chyzhevska told a panel on Ukraine’s reconstruction at a United Nations June gathering in the Polish city of Katowice. And as with post-World War II Europe, the geopolitics at play have aroused a desire to “annoy” and “exclude” Russia, Williams said.

But, in contrast with that era, it is a desire to play up the EU’s “current obsessions,” rather than those of the United States, that drives the reconstruction plan currently being shaped, Williams added. “That could be because they want to integrate Ukraine into the future of Europe,” he said. These obsessions include the European Green Deal, a set of policy proposals to make the bloc climate neutral by 2050, the professor added.

Pre-war Ukraine’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels reminds Olena Pavlenko, the president of the DiXi Group think tank in Kyiv, of the Ukrainian saying “life or wallet,” a tricky no-win question thieves ask “in dark streets.”

One way out of the problematic relationship would be for Ukraine to implement the European Green Deal’s renewable-energy target of at least 32 percent by 2030, said Andrian Prokip of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, another Kyiv think tank.

In a May video interview, Irina Stavchuk, then a deputy minister at Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, argued that dotting the landscape with sources of renewable energy would not only serve the environment and help achieve Ukraine’s energy independence, but also decentralize its sources of electricity, and in turn boost the system’s safety “if something happens.” When asked to clarify what she meant, Stavchuk said with a somber chuckle: “I just don’t want to think that Russia would invade us again.” (Stavchuk has since left her role as deputy minister following the appointment of a new minister.) Prokip was more direct about Russia’s wartime damage to Ukraine’s renewable and non-renewable energy plants: “It’s much more difficult to destroy renewable power plants with missiles compared to conventional power plants,” he said, because renewable sources like solar and wind farms are more scattered than thermal or nuclear power plants for the same amount of energy produced.

Ukraine’s EU candidacy could partly fund its adoption of the low-carbon practices Stavchuk evoked. To be sure, Ukraine’s climate policies have been gravitating toward those of the EU since it took its first, tentative step to enter the bloc in 2014 by signing the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, said Tibor Schaffhauser, who co-founded the Green Policy Center, a Hungarian climate-policy think tank. Under such pacts, non-EU nations must begin adopting the bloc’s rules on multiple fronts, including in the realm of climate and energy policy, as a prerequisite to moving their candidacy forward. Already, before the war, Ukraine had done so quite diligently and somewhat faster than Moldova and Georgia, two comparable countries that also harbor EU membership ambitions, Schaffhauser said.

In 2019, Ukraine banned hydrofluorocarbons, the greenhouse gas widely used in refrigeration. That same year, it adopted legislation to measure its greenhouse gas emissions, known as a monitoring, reporting and verifying system. The move is needed to set up national cap-and-trade systems, and it would ultimately enable Ukraine to join the European Union Emissions Trading System, a pillar of the EU’s policy to combat climate change. Then, five days into the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rushed his country’s EU application, imploring the bloc to grant it “immediate accession” in the face of Russia’s invasion. Just four months later, the EU largely acquiesced, granting it the status of candidate.

The step has been hailed as a symbolic milestone. But Marie-Eve Bélanger, a senior researcher at Swiss university ETH Zurich, argues that the impact of the major funding the EU will channel toward Ukraine due to its candidate status should not be discounted. Bélanger estimates that based on Ukraine’s population size, it could reap more than $696 million yearly as an EU candidate. Last year, by comparison, Ukraine received $140 million in support which the EU disburses to neighboring countries, the researcher said. The new influx of money, on top of reconstruction funds, represents one additional channel through which the bloc could encourage a climate-friendly reconstruction by conditioning the money to low-carbon policies, she said.

Whether Ukraine will find a way to make good on its promises remains to be seen. Environmentalists’ criticism of the government’s draft Ukraine Recovery Plan has ranged from “scattered” to outright “anti-environmental” due, for instance, to proposed projects that would facilitate timber extraction. The draft plan has also been criticized because it proposes fast-tracking a process that normally requires in-depth measurement of the environmental impact of planned industrial facilities.

For Andriy Andrusevych, a senior policy expert at Resource & Analysis Center “Society and Environment,” a Lviv-based think tank, the jury is still out as to whether the plan will deliver on Zelenskyy’s political agenda of seizing the moment to align the country with the EU and its low-carbon policies. The National Council for the Recovery of Ukraine from the Consequences of the War, a body established by the president, is still finalizing the draft plan.

The plan’s latest version encourages energy efficiency and a low-carbon steel industry fueled by clean hydrogen rather than dirty fossil fuels, said Andrusevych. The analyst views such mid-term objectives as merely “declarative,” lacking economic modeling to back them. Yet, he also warns against viewing the commitments as “just window dressing.” That’s because “the political will is very strong to implement these reforms as soon as possible so that we can qualify to enter the EU on these technical grounds,” he said.

The bottom line is this: “If the reconstruction plan is not green, then the environmental reforms will be the last ones to be implemented,” he said. “If it’s a green reconstruction plan, then the environmental reforms will go higher on the agenda.”

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