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Rebuild better for a sustainable future

  • Kateryna Utkina,

    Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Investigation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliations V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change, University of Graz, Graz, Austria, Luleå Tekniska Universitet, Luleå, Sweden

  • Ilona M. Otto ,

    Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change, University of Graz, Graz, Austria

  • Galina Churkina

    Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Validation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Institute of Ecology, Berlin University of Technology, Berlin, Germany

While it is important to recognize how as destructive the war in Ukraine has been and continues to be, it is just as important to start planning to rebuild the war-affected areas. Since the construction industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and the lifespan of buildings and infrastructure extends beyond 50 years, it is essential to include net-zero climate targets in the post-war reconstruction. One possible step that can be taken to meet the climate policy goals is to use construction materials, where the manufacturing and use have a balancing effect the GHG emissions. These construction materials store carbon, and their manufacturing is associated with low GHG emissions. To give an example, timber can be considered as an alternative material in place of traditionally used cement and steel. The total carbon stored in newly built urban infrastructures worldwide over the next 30 years would sum up to 2–20 Gt if 90% of these would be built with timber, to 1–11 Gt in the 50% timber scenario, and to 0.25–2.3 Gt in the 10% timber scenario [1]. However, few Ukrainian city planners and decision-makers have knowledge of climate policy goals or possible climate mitigation and adaptation options. Ukrainian scientists currently living abroad can play important roles in the knowledge transfer.

The post-war reconstruction as a window of opportunity to get closer to meeting the net-zero emissions targets in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine started in 2014, and its second phase began with the Russian aggression on 24 February 2022. In July 2022, the Ukrainian President V. Zelenskiy presented the Ukraine Recovery Plan; an interactive map of destruction was developed for better visualization. As of 5 July 2022, 1893 schools, 748 health facilities, 23,863.5 km roads and 59,031 mln sq m of residential buildings had been destroyed (most of the destruction of residential buildings had occurred in the Donetsk (17,324 mln sq m), Luhansk (12,021 mln sq m) and Kharkiv regions (9,578 mln sq m) [2]. Moreover, by June 2022, UNESCO had reported the destruction of 152 cultural sites, including churches and libraries [3]. During first 100 days, more than 300 bridges and about 20–30% of infrastructure elements were destroyed or partially damaged [4]. Typical examples of destruction are shown in Fig 1.

Fig 1. Typical examples of destruction, Kharkiv city (photo credits: Bogdan Chorniy).

According to the Fast Recovery Plan, which was presented on 4–5 July 2022 at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, Switzerland, a key focus should be placed on the liberated areas in the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv regions. According to data from July 2022 in liberated areas, 1997 houses including 199,873 apartments were completely destroyed, causing 329,360 persons to lose their homes, and 4677 houses including 280,620 apartments were partly ruined, causing 982,170 persons to lose their homes. Twenty percent of these examples of destruction were one-room apartments (approx. 32 m2 each), 28% were two-room apartments (approx. 49 m2 each), and 52% were three-room apartments (approx. 65 m2 each). However, destructive acts of war are still going on, and these figures have certainly increased since July 2022 [5].

As the military actions are still ongoing, the war-affected areas cannot be rebuilt yet. However, while compiling plans for reconstruction and updating national legislation on construction, the attention of Ukrainian policy- and decision-makers should be turned toward using sustainable construction materials and increasing the long-term resilience of the reconstructed human settlements. Although this war is run on fossil fuels and partially fuelled by revenue from fossil fuel sales, this crisis and post-war reconstruction should be used as an important window of opportunity and way to meet the net-zero emissions target.

The manufacture of construction materials is responsible for about 15% of the GHG industry emissions in Ukraine, and buildings generate about 8% of the country’s GHG emissions [6]. The average lifespan of residential buildings in Ukraine is 100 years, the average lifespan of commercial buildings is 60 years, and the average lifespan of large infrastructure elements in Ukraine ranges from 40–100 years [7].

One possible solution is to use biomass-based products to reconstruct buildings. Recent research findings demonstrate that many mineral-based products can be substituted by products that are rich in carbon, including biomass-based or carbon capture-based products. For example, substituting concrete and steel with timber in construction offers the potential to store up to 20 Gt C (75 Gt CO2) in buildings needed for new urban dwellers over the next 30 years, reducing the associated CO2 emissions by half [1]. Technologies that promise to capture carbon directly from atmospheric CO2 and convert this carbon into socially useful products are under active development [8]. Table 1 demonstrates the potential in terms of saving CO2 emissions when rebuilding completely damaged buildings in Ukraine by using mass timber instead of steel and concrete.

Table 1. Minimum, mean and maximum carbon emissions from rebuilding completely destroyed residential buildings by July 2022 with mass timber or steel or concrete in Ukraine.

There is enough biomass in Ukraine to meet the new demand

In Ukraine, 16.7% of the territory is covered by forests [9]. Most of the timber in Ukraine is harvested in the western part, such as in the Ivano-Frankivsk, Zakarpatska, Volynska and Rivenska regions. In Ukraine, the average growing stock is currently 235 m3 o.b./ha (= overbark per hectare). About 15% of the total forested area is protected in order to conserve biodiversity, and one-third of the forested and other wooded area is designated as protected forest land. The annual amount of marketed roundwood was 15,124,000 m3 in 2020 [10].

We estimate that rebuilding all completely destroyed buildings by using mass timber will require the use of 7,813,435 to 10,417,914 m3 of softwood over a period of three to five years. The future roundwood production at the 2020 level could meet approximately 50–70% of the new demand. Since many of the countries that are importing wood are boycotting wood from Russia, the demand for wood from these countries is expected to put pressure on the forest resources of other countries exporting wood, including Ukraine. Limiting the export of wood abroad and reducing the use of timber for other domestic purposes such as heating would be advisable if the reconstruction of cities by using timber would be considered as an option after the war. This would help to lower the pressure on Ukrainian forests and assure sustainable forest regrowth after harvesting.

Awareness of climate change issues among Ukrainian city planners and decision-makers

Climate change is still a relatively new topic among Ukrainian city planners and decision-makers. In 2020, recommendations were made to include climate change issues in the city planning documents for the first time. Several cities (e.g. Zaporizzhya) have approved plans for climate change adaptation. Climate change issues have integrated into city development strategy documents for the cities of Chernivtsi and Uzhgorod [11]. In the Analytical Report “Climate Change: Consequences and Adaptation Actions” [12] prepared for Ukraine, we can see that city strategic development and planning is considered as a high-priority action.

Decision-makers need to be trained and familiarised with new approaches toward the development and construction of new districts and buildings. Moreover, during the post-war rebuilding phase, new standards in urban planning should be applied. For this purpose, the Ukrainian Parliament and local authorities have started initiatives that focus on the development of new legislative and normative documents [13]. These will also include safety requirements (e.g. protective shelters in all new buildings). We suggest that these documents should also address energy efficiency and new construction materials standards. Such a combination will assure that a contribution is made to climate change adaptation and mitigation measures on the national and local levels.

Ukrainian scientists as transmitters of knowledge

Many Ukrainian people, and predominantly women and children, have left the country and are currently staying abroad. More than 5.1 million Ukrainian people are in Europe; 26,000 of these are school and university teachers and scientists. Many people, like the first author of this study, are currently being hosted by climate and environment research organisations. This provides an unprecedented opportunity for these individuals to receive training as climate educators and to establish cooperation networks with their home organisations.

Scholarships that have been made available to Ukrainian scientists as well as international and national funding schemes are supporting cooperation with Ukrainian researchers and research organizations to help them reach the net-zero climate goals. As an example, Ukraine has become an associated country in the EU Horizon Europe research programme. The total budget for the Horizon 2020 programme is 95.5 billion euros. The Climate Change and Environment topics are among the topics assigned the highest priority. For example, Cluster 5: Climate, Energy and Mobility received 274 million euros of research funding in 2021 and 2022. Moreover, about 503 billion euros will be granted over a 10-year period as part of the EU Green Deal. Thus, the EU Commission wants more than 35% of its €95.5 billion budget to contribute to meeting climate goals.

The academic community should start raising awareness about sustainable and resilient approaches toward the post-war rebuilding efforts in Ukraine. New courses and curricula can be developed and introduced into the regular education and life-long-learning programmes. Special courses should target decision-makers as well as city planners and construction engineers. Furthermore, information campaigns that are appropriate for reaching a broad target audience are needed. National legislation and construction standards need to be up-dated, and regional development programmes should include climate change mitigation and adaptation plans. Scientists who left Ukraine and are continuing their work abroad can play important roles in the knowledge transfer.

The war is horrific and should never happen again. However, crises often open up possibilities for radical policy shifts [14]. By decreasing the demand for fossil fuels and increasing greenhouse gas storage potential, we can increase our long-term resilience and avoid future crises. Ukrainian scientists and members of society should consider the post-war reconstruction in Ukraine as an opportunity to introduce new scientific concepts, sustainable technologies and standards into everyday practices and to rebuild the country in order to ensure a better future for the next generations.


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