Ukraine is planning its green reconstruction even as the war rages on

KYIV – Ms Valeriya Izhyk was excited when she arrived at the Ukrainian ski resort of Bukovel, in the Carpathian Mountains, last Christmas Eve. The 28-year-old would be reunited with her parents for the first time since February 2022, when she had fled her home in Kyiv for Brussels in the wake of Russia’s invasion. 

The three had picked the resort because it was far from the front lines and cities under constant shelling. But it was still marked by the war. 

“The first thing we heard when we stepped outside was the noise of the generators. Every hotel had one, and they were huge,” Ms Izhyk said. “The second thing we felt was the polluted air – worse than in any city. It was impossible to breathe.” 

The memory stayed with Ms Izhyk after she had returned to Brussels and her job at CEE Bankwatch Network, a consortium of environmental groups. It made her think differently about the European Parliament’s Generators of Hope programme, which donated hundreds of diesel-powered generators to Ukraine as Russian attacks knocked out the power grid. While the programme met a critical need, the trade-offs worried her.  

“It’s not enough to just throw the cheapest energy solution to Ukraine and expect this to be considered as ‘job done’,” she said. “You have to put your money where your mouth is, even in situations like Ukraine.” 

Ms Izhyk belongs to a far-flung yet constantly-in-touch network of Ukrainian activists, scientists and architects who share the same goal as officials in Kyiv and Brussels: ensuring that the rebuilding of Ukraine – a massive project getting under way even before the war’s end – has as small a carbon footprint as possible and improves the nation’s resilience to impacts of climate change. 

Thinking about rebuilding in the middle of a war, with a new offensive against Russia in the works, might seem far-fetched. But for Ukraine, green reconstruction is not just good for the planet. It is essential to the country’s economic recovery and national security. Russian attacks caused damage worth US$8.1 billion (S$10.8 billion) in Ukraine’s energy sector during the first year of the war, the Kyiv School of Economics estimates. The average Ukrainian household endured 35 days without power last winter. 

“It is very important to decentralise our power generation,” Energy Minister German Galushchenko told Bloomberg Green. “The obvious solution is renewables.” 

Leaders also see clean power as a way to permanently end the country’s dependence on Russian gas. For decades, Moscow used its control over gas that flows through pipelines across Ukraine and into Europe as a tool to influence officials in Kyiv. (In 2015, Ukraine stopped direct purchases of gas from Russia’s Gazprom following the country’s invasion of the Crimea peninsula and the Donbas region.) 

“We need to speed up (the transition from gas) from the point of view of a military threat,” Mr Galushchenko said. 

Green rebuilding is also crucial to the country’s hopes of attaining European Union membership. Ukraine was given candidate status in June 2022 and, as part of that, will need to align itself with the bloc’s sustainability principles, climate targets and legislation. 

“To rebuild Ukraine in a way that wasn’t energy efficient, that didn’t have green solutions or integrated transport schemes that will lower pollution – basically, that would be a big mistake,” said EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius. 

Even as the war grinds on and its outcome remains uncertain, reconstruction funds have started to flow. Clean energy and energy-efficient buildings are part of the Ukrainian government’s plans, and lenders such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) have added climate conditions to their reconstruction loans. 

A greener Ukraine rising from the rubble is the vision. It could be a global template for climate-friendly post-war recovery, especially since it will be able to tap resources that most nations emerging from conflict cannot. But this will be challenging to pull off, despite the EU’s full backing. 

The urge to build back fast to meet immediate needs, regardless of green targets, will be strong. At least 5.3 million Ukrainians were internally displaced as at January, and 17.6 million people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations refugee agency. 

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