Environmental impacts of the Russo-Ukrainian War

March 29, 2022   |   Tags: ,

And the world’s reaction to it – especially that of the FedGov and the Fifty States.

It appears that the war might be slowing down a bit – after more than a month of fighting. Or maybe Will Smith slapping that guy has just pushed it out of the news?

Whatever might be the cause, even though the war may be less likely to lead to a nuclear exchange or even a more general war, we are going to be living with the effects of this relatively minor conflict for some time.

Although modern warfare – especially between two modern, fully-equipped, well-trained and highly-motivated opponents – results in significant and highly damaging environmental impacts, the other impacts of this on-going war may be far worse.

Of particular concern is the way the world has reacted and the measures to “punish” Russia being imposed by governments. However, much of the damage to the environment we may see is due to conditions created long before Russian tanks rolled into Ukrainian territory.

First let us talk about food. (Maybe other stuff later.)

Be prepared, this commentary is going to get technical really quickly. But we aren’t talking PhD stuff here. We are talking about things every home gardener and REAL farmer knows – and basic math.

Both Russia and Ukraine are important worldwide sources of critical raw materials. More than just food crops (wheat, corn, sunflower oil, etc.) these two nations supply many elements essential for food production and processing around the world. Even in the States.

Chief among these?

  • Fertilizers: not just from petroleum, but from other sources.
World use of fertilizers
  • A key fertilizer is potash (potassium oxide. In 2020, the US produced only 470,000 tons of the stuff, down half from 850,000 tons in 2014. Almost all comes from Utah and New Mexico, and the drop was likely due to Obama-era restrictions, not removed by Trump. What is critical is that this 370KT is only 7 percent of US demand (about 5-6 million tons). Canada supplies some of that of its 14 MT/year production, but much comes from Russia and Belarus (15 MT/year production). All of these countries use much of their own production, and to supply to European, Asian, and South American countries.
  • Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers: N fertilizer is produced from natural gas or coal, and is mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia and the infamous ammonium nitrate: the US uses 16 MT a year but only produces 14 MT. Production numbers are harder to come by but Europe is a massive importer of the stuff. And since it is both high energy AND uses natural gas as a raw material, the availability and cost are related closely to oil and gas prices and regulatory limits.
  • Phosphorus. Like potash, phosphorus is mined (as phosphates). Canada and the States use more than 32 million tons a year but only produce about 26 MT a year. Europe needs more than 8 MT but produces less than 1 MT a year: they import from Russia, the Middle East, and Africa.
  • Like all mined products, the cost and availability is tied to transportation costs: rail and truck and ship.
  • Pesticides, again often from petroleum products. These are critical, courtesy of adaptation (micro-evolution) of insects (and other pests, including microorganisms) which have adopted to modern monoculture and the stuff like wheat, corn, soybeans: the bottom of the food pyramid. As oil prices go up and the supply chain remains unstable (at best) it is harder to get the poisons we need to be able to produce food. No, organic is NOT the answer, in part because organic farming methods (not using pesticides and manufactured or mined fertilizers) have MUCH lower yields. Organic farming cannot produce enough to feed the world’s population.

Now with a worldwide economy, losing just Russia and Ukraine could lead to a food crisis.

As just 5% of American oil came from Russia, but just Europe and China are highly dependent on Russian oil and gas, so are they dependent for food.

The food itself: wheat, corn, and other food crops. But especially the fertilizers and pesticides that let European countries grow as much food as they do.

Many of the reasons that EU countries are dependent on Russia, Ukraine, and to a lesser degree Belarus are directly related to government. European Union government policies have been highly damaging to in-country production of these chemicals. Just as here in the States, the fedgov has all but eliminated some types of mining and processing (for example, rare earths). So in Europe the politicians and bureaucrats in Strasbourg and Brussels have destroyed critical industries. Directly related to the government regulations is the shortage of fuels and chemical feedstocks and power needed to produce these things.

The bottom line? Feast can turn into famine in just weeks.

This is not to say that the doomsayers are right and a half-billion people are going to starve in China, or that food riots will break out in American cities.

But there will be serious problems – especially as the bureaucrats in DC, London, Brussels and elsewhere get going. “Of course we have to keep the people of Europe (and even of Ukraine and Russia) from starving!” So let us impose rationing and Make America Thin Again! AND it is a perfect opportunity: we MUST have price controls to keep the profiteering by farmers and Big Ag and the trucking companies to a minimum! And make sure we get the government’s “fair share” of those profits so we can cause trouble someplace else in the world.

There are, of course, a lot of variables and immediate and long-term effects that we can discuss later. But in the meantime, be prepared for some shortages, some even more hefty price increases, and more troubles for those who live on the margin.