Although it’s been very slow to emerge, there is increasing concern expressed in Russia about the environment, from pollution related to industry and unregulated landfills to climate change. The Russian government has finally been forced to recognize the problem – at least in terms of rhetoric, with 2017 having been officially declared “The Year of the Environment in Russia.”
This past September, Russia – the fourth biggest emitter of carbon in the world – finally ratified the Paris Climate Accord. However, Russia could remain within its commitments to the accord by increasing its current emissions because of the major drop that came after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There has been talk for several years that Putin even supports the formation of a Green Party, though some wonder if it would just be another small rather ineffectual party with a green “flavor.”
Over the past year, Russia has experienced major storms, floods and wildfires on an unprecedented scale – of which the aftermath prompted a personal visit by Putin in which he scolded the poor emergency response by local officials. But there is much more damage happening that hasn’t received such a dramatic treatment by the media. A recent article from Asia Times reports:
The Kremlin has now been forced to acknowledge that Russia is being hit hardest by climate change. According to state agency Rosgydromet, global warming is taking place 2.5 times faster in Russia than on average in the rest of the world, because of its geographical position.
Some effects of climate change became evident this summer, when surging wildfires devastated millions of hectares of Siberian taiga and floods ravaged the Irkutsk region.
But these are minor developments compared to a far, far greater peril.
If temperatures continue rising, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia’s permanently frozen landmass – a vast geographic region which makes up 60% of the country’s territory.
Melting of permafrost poses threats to “the structural stability and functional capacities” of key infrastructure, as pointed out in a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
According to separate estimates by the Russian Academy of Science, at current rates, the area covered by permafrost will shrink by a staggering 25% by 2080. That shrinkage threatens $250 billion worth of physical infrastructure, including energy pipelines, transportation networks and residences.
Additional reporting by Moscow correspondent Fred Weir for CSM revealed more concerns:
Arctic ice, receding at a record pace, revealed five new islands in the Russian far north this year that had been hidden under the ice sheets for all of recorded human history.
Russian scientists aboard a research ship near the northern coast of Siberia last week were amazed to discover a massive eruption of methane bubbles from the ocean floor. The huge clouds of the super-greenhouse gas suggest that the underlying permafrost is melting faster than anyone could have anticipated.
This all begs the question of whether any short-term benefits that Russia might gain from more comfortable temperatures in populated areas or the opening up of formerly unreachable resources might be seriously outweighed by the longer-term liabilities.
According to polls administered by the Russian government, over half of Russians think environmental problems are worsening and two-thirds don’t think the government is doing enough about it. More importantly, a recent Russian poll to ascertain the attitude of youths (aged 10 – 18, living in 52 Russian regions) toward several issues, showed that almost half were concerned about the environment and 90 percent thought that updated laws were needed to better protect the environment.
With this context in mind, I will share comments that Putin made at the recent Valdai conference with respect to climate change in response to a question about Russia’s ratification of the Paris accord and how to resolve the conflict between protection of the environment and economic imperatives:
Vladimir Putin: As for the uniformity of approaches and evaluations, we will probably never reach this. Indeed, experts in various fields who somehow try to answer the question about the causes of climate change do not give unambiguous answers to the causes of climate change.
There are different opinions, I have heard them. Some say there is some global change in space that affects the Earth, so from time to time huge changes like this take place on our planet. I sailed along the Lena River in our country and saw high banks with deposits containing the remains of obviously ancient tropical mammals, which lived in tropical seas. I am talking about the Lena River, its stretch north of the Arctic Circle. It means back then the climate there was like this. Well, were there any anthropogenic emissions at the time? Of course, not. You see, there is no answer.
Just the same, my position is that if the human race is responsible for climate change, even in the slightest degree, and this climate change has grave implications, and if we can do something to, at least, slow down this process and avoid its negative consequences, we must spare no effort. This is our position. Despite all disagreements, we will support the international efforts to combat climate change.
Indeed, we have practically ratified the Paris Agreement and are committed to implementing it. You said we hesitated or argued about it. There will always be room for doubt or disputes. But look at the obligations that we undertook and those undertaken by our partners. We are committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 70 or 75 percent by 2050.
By the way, the European Union has undertaken to cut the same type of gas emissions by 60 percent. We have approved a national environmental programme. It sets forth in detail what we must do and how we must do it complete with the deadlines. We have approved 12 federal programmes under the national project to work to change the situation regarding the environment. Gas emissions in 12 of the largest metropolises in our country, where they affect people’s lives and have a negative impact on the environment, must be reduced by 20 percent.
We have adopted a programme to deal with waste dumps – not only with primitive rubbish dumps but with hazardous waste as well. We have adopted a programme to extend protected nature areas by five million square kilometres. We have a whole set of measures that we are not just intending to carry out but we have already started to implement and they have already been made law in our country. So, we are determined to move, together with our partners, along this path that is laid down in the Paris Agreement.
As for the hydrocarbons, I think it was yesterday that I said the structure of the Russian energy sector is one of the world’s greenest. The nuclear power and hydropower industries in our country account for a third of the energy sector and gas accounts for 50 percent of the remaining two-thirds.
We have one of the greenest energy sectors in the world plus the capacity of our forests to absorb [waste carbon dioxide]. So, we understand the threats that everyone, including us, are exposed to. The warming rate in Russia exceeds that in the rest of the world by 2.5 percent. We are aware of this.
And one more thing: there are forests ablaze in one part of our country while close to it there is flooding and there is also drought and so on. We are well aware of this and we will do, jointly with the whole world, with the humankind, whatever it takes to preserve nature and the environment.