There is no Russian pavilion at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt. There is a Ukrainian one and it has been a hit, not just because of the environmental message it delivers but for its powerful anti-war message, too.
Last Friday, an unusual guest made an appearance at the pavilion: a watermelon.
It was brought in to celebrate the liberation of Kherson from Russian occupation and was placed on a chair draped with the Ukrainian flag. The fruit became a symbol of Ukraine’s victory last week when a video of a Ukrainian soldier entering the city while holding up a watermelon, as crowds cheered, went viral.
“Ukraine is very good at procuring howitzers and HIMARS missiles – also watermelons in Egypt,” Oleksiy Ryabchin, Ukraine’s chief climate negotiator and former deputy minister of energy and environment, told The Globe and Mail.
Finding the watermelon was not easy, since they are out of season in Egypt. Nor was anything else about the pavilion.
Ukraine typically has had a low-key presence at climate conferences. Its pavilion at COP27, in fact, is its first since the Conference of the Parties was launched by the United Nations in Berlin in 1995 with the goal of saving the planet from orbiting toast status.
Ukraine came close to being a no-show in Sharm el-Sheikh. “We are a country at war and had more urgent things to do,” said Oleg Kuruchuk, spokesman for Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine’s Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. “Also, we had no money.”
But at the end of September, Kyiv decided it would use COP27 to show the world the environmental damage the Russian invasion has inflicted on Ukraine, plus deliver the message that Ukraine would – and could – carry on with international business despite the horrific consequences of a war that has entered its ninth month.
“We had to be here,” Mr. Strilets told The Globe in an interview at the pavilion. “The COPs are one of the highest-level events in the world. We had support from almost everyone to be here. Our pavilion is a place of unity for our allies.”
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The pavilion, which covers about 100 square metres and is staffed by eight Ukrainians, was financed by international donors, including the European Union, various UN agencies and a few private sponsors. Its design was produced by a young architect in Kyiv who sometimes had to work in the dark because of Russian attacks on the country’s power grid. The pavilion was put in place at the last minute, just before COP27 opened last week.
Its slanted, dark grey walls are austere. It was not meant to deliver a bright, cheery message, even though Ukraine’s counteroffensive has, so far, been a spectacular success.
One room features wall-mounted plastic containers filled with 16 types of soil, including Ukraine’s famous chernozem, the black soil, rich in organic matter, that has made the country one of the world’s greatest producers of wheat and other staples that feed the world. In the Second World War, the German army dug up the soil and delivered it to German farmlands. Photos and videos in the pavilion show farmland pockmarked with craters from Russian bombs, destroyed farm equipment and burning fields.
Another display shows the trunk of an oak tree damaged by an explosion in Irpin, a small city that was virtually destroyed by Russian forces during the failed Kyiv offensive in March. Virtual-reality headsets give visitors a 360-degree view of the epic destruction of cities, farms and energy infrastructure. Mr. Ryabchin, the climate negotiator, has photos on his phone of wrecked wind turbines and solar panels, some of which were removed from solar farms and used to cover Russian trenches and bomb shelters.
Mr. Strilets put the total war damage so far at US$38-billion. “The figure will of course increase,” he said. “We want war reparations from Russia. We just want to show everybody the damage so that some will know about wars. They are expensive.”
The Ukrainian delegation has no great hopes that COP27 will make any breakthroughs on climate finance or any other area, but its delegates said their mission has already been accomplished. It has highlighted the devastation of farmland and other environmental damage inflicted by Russia and has delivered the message that Ukraine – as an independent country, not a Russian colony – intends to meet its carbon reduction commitments.
Part of Ukraine’s battle on the carbon reduction front involves Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014. The two countries are locked in a sovereignty battle with the UN over who can put Crimea’s emissions on their greenhouse gases tally. Each country claims Crimea’s emissions as its own.
The war, of course, will delay Ukraine’s progress on the environmental front. Before the war started in February, the country’s goal was to reduce carbon emissions by 65 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. “Our victory will come in the near future, and we will have to correct a little on emissions reduction,” Mr. Strilets said. “Russia has put us back some years, but our overall ambition remains intact.”