War, Energy and the Environment


The web comprising war, energy and the environment is a tangled one indeed.

War has obvious environmental implications – weapons designed to be destructive and used against an enemy ‘other’ tend to unleash damage not only to infrastructure but also to natural ecosystems and biodiversity, contaminating soil and water in the process. It stands to reason that “disregard for human life can go hand-in-hand with disregard for the environment and loss of biodiversity”. Destruction of the natural environment has always been associated with war and defeating a constructed enemy. Our reliance on ecosystems for our survival makes this tactic extremely successful making it all the more perplexing that we would, without coercion outside of military activity, do this to ourselves through a lack of care or in search of profits.

At every stage of military operations from drills to full blown engagement there is the potential of severe environmental destruction. The surreal encounter between Irish fishermen and the Russian navy illustrated just now much of a threat military drills can be to biodiversity and natural resources to those who rely on them. Digging deeper into this David and Goliath story reveals only part of the truth. These Russian ships do no more damage than the NATO or Royal Navy ships which occasionally ‘play fight’ in our waters. Even then it is not the ships themselves but the use of specific weapons or the speed at which these travel and which harbour the major threats.[1]

On the flip side, environmental destruction, resource scarcity and the consequences of climate change is a ticking time bomb for escalating conflict, closing the loop between environmental degradation and conflict.

The role of energy

The recent escalation in military activity along the Ukraine border highlights the particular ways in which war particularly interacts with energy. A lot of wars, in one way or another, are related to access to energy, particularly fossil fuels. “Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, the East and South China Seas: wherever you look, the world is aflame with new or intensifying conflicts. At first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances. But look more closely and they share several key characteristics – notably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy”. War as a result of coveting your neighbours’ goods is not a new thing and can be seen down through history with the use of Irish timber by the British one such example, the effects of which we are still experiencing.

The bargaining chip

The cancellation of the gas pipeline between Russia and Germany is another twist in this tale as it flipped this narrative and highlighted that energy is not only the cause of wars but also the hostage and bargaining chip that can be traded or used as sanctions. This expensive and controversial fossil fuel infrastructure, intended to strengthen relationships between countries as well as ensure energy supply to central Europe, is well on its way to being a stranded asset. Russian invasion into Ukraine has officially resulted in this completed, but never officially opened project, being shelved forcing Berlin to play one of its strongest hands.

It is important here to stress here that my expertise does not extend to military tactics – it remains firmly in the safer ground of ecology and environmental science. However, working in the climate change space makes it impossible to ignore implications these violent actions have.

Fossil fuels, deadly not only in fuelling the fires of the climate emergency, also spark and fuel the flames of war. These two issues share a common solution which, while not being the silver bullet of either, can help ameliorate the pressure.

Renewable energy as a solution

Ramping up renewable energy, alongside reducing our energy demand through retrofitting, can help lower dependence on fossil fuel producing countries. To put it another way “the energy transition will not only cut emissions: it will redistribute power”. Take Ireland for example, we would never be considered a major fossil fuel producer resulting in us depending on imports for the majority of our energy needs. The price of this energy is also heavily dependent on global fossil fuel prices and politics. On the other hand, Ireland is rich is renewable energy. Blessed with abundant coastlines and large amounts of wind we now have the opportunity to be truly energy secure and not overly dependent on unreliable imports.

Extending this idea, as well as the renewable infrastructure that goes with it,  across Europe, we see that gas pipeline which Germany shelved represents not only a stranded asset sacrifice resulting from Russian aggressions but as a redundant piece of infrastructure to be replaced by wind turbines and solar panels spread out across the continent.

Our dependence on energy should never have been a reason to start a war – we now have the means to make that a reality.




[1] Conversely, the opposite can also hold true in different circumstances. Military training grounds which tend to be protected from cultivation, industrialisation and have restricted access tend to be biodiversity hotspots. The disturbance caused by the military training in an area protected from other stressors provides a mosaic of different habitats where biodiversity can flourish. (https://news.mongabay.com/2016/11/military-training-areas-can-be-important-wildlife-refuges-new-study/)