Russia - has the world's biggest country turned against the environment?

Linevo and its water reservoir formed by a dam on Koinikha, a small river falling into Ob. The giant Novosibirsk Electrode Factory is on the background. Photo: Tatiana Bulyonkova via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Linevo and its water reservoir formed by a dam on Koinikha, a small river falling into Ob. The giant Novosibirsk Electrode Factory is on the background. Photo: Tatiana Bulyonkova via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA). Novosibirsk district, Russia.
While other countries apply themselves to environmental challenges from climate change to nature protection, Russia - with its massive wealth of nature and natural resources - is stubbornly refusing to take part, writes Lucy E J Woods. And as the economy declines, the pressure is on: to ignore environmental regulations, and clamp down on environmental defenders.
Economic pressures are causing desperate fossil fuel companies to consider the unthinkable: complete disregard for environmental regulations. The latest Gazprom development is to build in the mountainous national parks and nature reserves of Kavkaz.

Russia is the globe's biggest single nation. It spans nine time zones, borders Europe, China, North Korea and the Arctic; has the world's eighth largest economy, 140 million residents, and unmatchable potential in leading the globe towards ecological peace.

Yet Russia trundles sluggishly behind the rest of the world in international environmental policy.

It wasn't always like this. Soviet Russia was pro-renewables. The first wind turbine was up and running in the 1940s, and solar panels were developed as part of the Soviet Union's space programme. Huge hydropower dams were built electrifying the country, making Russia a global powerhouse.

However, Russia then "discovered this huge amount of oil in the 60s" and forgot all about renewables, says WWF Russia's extractive industries environmental policy officer, Alexey Knizhnikov.

Knizhnikov explains this through a thick Russian accent, very patiently repeating phrases and spelling out words across a huge round oak table in the WWF Moscow office. He is passionate when the "flagship" conservation of Russia's remaining walruses and bears are mentioned, and refreshingly open minded when it comes to the tough job of negotiating with Russia's oligarchic fossil fuel companies.

And yes, Russia is big in oil and gas - but also in water, nature, beauty

Russia alone is home to the globe's second largest quantities of coal and natural gas with significant oil reserves, accounting for half of Russia's sovereign wealth.

With all that fossil fuel Russia's carbon emissions (when measured as per real GDP), are 60% higher than the average of most other developed countries - its extraction is so prolific that its pipelines alone could loop the planet six times over.

But not just a land of fossil fuels, Russia has unimaginable wealth in the natural landscapes its NGOs are attempting to save; Russia is home to the globe's largest forest areas and a staggering 20% of the world's unfrozen fresh water resides in just one of its lakes: the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lake Baikal.

The Lake is so clear it's rumored you can drink straight from it. Tasting some (admittedly filtered!) Baikal water, after taking a long journey from mainland Siberia to pitch a tent on the idyllic shores of it's largest island, Orkon, the lake water is refreshingly icy to drink.

Orkhon Island only gained electricity access ten years ago and still has little in the way of tarmac roads, sewage and running water. Lavish ten bedroom holiday cabins are scattered amongst dilapidated slum-shacks. Battered Ladas and Soviet-built Moskvich vehicles zoom between the handful of towns, while Volkswagon vans kick up dust storms along the bumpy dirt roads that lead to the island's singular ferry.

Economic pressures are causing desperate fossil fuel companies to consider the unthinkable: complete disregard for environmental regulations. The latest Gazprom development is to build in the mountainous national parks and nature reserves of Kavkaz.

Across the Lake somber shadows of the adjacent snow covered mountaintops dance on the surface of the deep, clear waters. Strips of brightly coloured fabric tied to Buddhist monuments flutter in the breeze, paying respects to the spirits of tall pine forests and rolling sand dunes.

The monuments hint at Orkon's once solely Buryat (a Mongolian ethnic group) population. There are still Mongolian ger tents pitched around the island, selling souvenirs.

Orkhon Island is just one example of a newly booming eco tourism spot. There are 26 similar UNESCO world heritage sites, 40 national parks and 100 wildlife reserves. With runaway climate change threatening them all, Russia cannot afford to keep ignoring its contribution and responsibilities to the global environment.

Protecting Russia - how Russians are trying to save the environment

Trying to protect this awe-inspiring environment, as an NGO, however, is "dangerous", reveals Knizhnikov, "A lot of our colleagues are in prison now."

Activist numbers are suffering as a result of this government pressure. Exacerbating the situation further is an informal order to mark environmental NGOs with the status of 'foreign agent', or paid spies, says Vladimir Tchouprov, the vivacious head of energy at Greenpeace Russia and devoted activist.

"This is political, this is the attempt of the government to move public opinion from the real problem", says Tchouprov.

With NGOs doggedly fighting spy accusation propaganda - as Sakhalin Watch and 90 other environmental groups are now doing - Russia's world-renowned scientists are left with only their research when asking for policy to mirror science.

"It is very political", says Alexey Mikheev, scientific secretary and doctor of engineering at the Russian Academy of Sciences' (RAS)'s Melentiev Energy Systems Institute, located in the desolate, cold, former political exile favourite: Irkutsk, Siberia. An economics expert at the same institute, Maysyuk Elevo says many scientists oppose Russia's energy and environment policies.

More than 2,500 miles away, in a suave Moscow restaurant a maverick government official from Russia's energy sector tells me over lunch that the lack of private investment in science is what stifles scientists' voices from policy decisions. "They can't influence officials or government, or business or ministers", he says. "Russian science is wholly dependent on the state."

Tchouprov recounts one attempt to finance science projects privately, called 'Dynasty Foundation'. Set up as a charity to finance scientific research, it was proclaimed a foreign agent and forced to cease operations. "Even such a small foundation has been stopped."

Private money is readily available for London real estate, yachts, and luxury ski zones in the Caucus, "but not in science", laments Tchouprov. Would-be renewable energy investors fear "the absence of stability, no rules, and state monopoly" in Russian environment and energy policy.

However, NGOs and scientists are not the only ones facing new challenges...

Russia's fossil fuel woes

Big Oil is moving east as export markets rapidly decline. Russia's largest export market, Europe, is preparing to phase out fossil fuels, says Tchouprov. EU economic sanctions restrict Russian fossil fuel corporations' investment loans to a 90-day maximum.

In response, gas giant Gazprom is already building domestic liquefied natural gas plants. There is one plant in the far eastern Sakhalin Oblast, and a second is underway in the northwest Siberian province of Yamal. Both are built to avoid the EU, opting instead to sell gas in domestic regions without technology restrictions or sanctions, says Tchouprov.

Sanctions caused the ruble to crash, along with any investments in updating Russia's outdated energy sector. Domestic and foreign investment in Russia is predicted by the World Bank to either stagnant or decrease, with negative economic growth projected for 2015-16.

These economic pressures are causing desperate fossil fuel companies to consider the unthinkable: complete disregard for all international environmental regulations. The latest Gazprom development is to build new infrastructure located in Kavkaz, the Kerch Strait, Western Caucus, between Ukraine, Georgia and Russia: in the mountainous national parks and nature reserves protected by UNESCO.

"It is a completely corrupt project. It is laundry of money to build luxury apartments for rich people. It is not investment, it's just stealing money. It is not for people or business - it is just business as usual in Russia", states Tchouprov.

Russian pipelines are also moving east to export to China. With pipelines marked out to cover the Golden Mountains of Altai - another UNESCO world heritage site.

Knizhnikov explains WWF have been fighting the Altai pipeline development for years but "all this shift from Europe [markets] to China, now it is much more political."

Permafrost and immigration

On top of all these challenges, 65% of Russia is covered in melting permafrost, and mass climate migration from Central Asia is predicted.

The permafrost territory accounts for more than half of oil and gas mines, thousands of miles of pipe infrastructure, four nuclear reactors and a few million people, all at risk from the cracking permafrost, says Tchouprov.

Ironically, colossal investments from fossil fuel companies are being thrown at keeping oil and gas infrastructures safe from the melting permafrost they helped aggravate, reveals Knizhnikov.

When it comes to policies planning for climate migration from central Asia, the Russian government is utterly unprepared. One environmental minister, when reminded at a conference by Greenpeace that mass climate migration is coming, responded with: "Oh shit!"

This reluctance to adapt is imbedded in the introverted and conservative Russian culture, says Tchouprov. "We think we know better and we are different. This is wrong. We are different, but not enough to escape this mega change in energy."

However the government official hopes this will change with tangible, sizable and generating renewable energy plants in Russia. "The Russian mentality needs to see realized projects, they will only buy it when they see it", he says.

Renewables and environmental regulations in Russia

The Kremlin "don't understand that renewables can now be a priority, they still think renewables is some kind of luxury toy for rich people, is extremely expensive, needing a lot of back up and a lot of technical improvements, and is useless rather than common, this is the myth" perpetuated by state propaganda, reveals Tchouprov.

Renewable energy development in Russia is heavily restricted by state imposed capacity and local content restrictions, zero private investment and a grid built for Soviet times.

However the state does provide support for all renewables, in all regions - just limited to plants 25MW and under.

The official national renewable energy target is 5GW by 2020, around 4.5% of Russia's total energy mix. For comparison, solar energy alone reached 5GW installed capacity in the UK, over a year ago.

There are, still, several successful renewable energy plants - albeit tiny, off grid and in the farthest corners of the country, used mostly by reindeer farmers in snow-covered oblasts.

Russia also has ecological zones, monitored by drones with strict fines, as well as government aid and monitoring for conservation. Tatiana Tuguzova, a warm and friendly senior researcher also from the Melentiev Energy Systems Institute in Irkutsk, explains that there are even some areas where "only clean energy is allowed" - but again, only in very remote areas where it is too difficult or expensive to connect to the existing central grid.

WWF has had some success in gaining government action too, by presenting strong scientific arguments. WWF reversed state decisions for coalmines and pipelines in forests. "Our government listened", Knizhnikov says triumphantly.

However, such thorough presentations require what NGOs are most scarce on. sighs Knizhinkov: "time."

Next on Russia's environmental policy horizon

Despite solar lights and bikes in urban centers, flooding and forest fires increasing public awareness, Russia is far behind on the international stage when it comes to climate change action.

For the upcoming United Nations climate change talks in Paris this November, Russia's targets "are not very ambitious", says Tchouprov. Predictions are for a meager minus 30% emissions target by 2030, "keeping Russia dependent on oil and gas exports."

Knizhnikov says WWF is working on gaining science-led agreements and supporting anti coal movements in the build up to November. But for the rapid change deemed necessary by the international scientific community, Tchouprov is stern in stating that Russia "needs bankruptcy."

"When the elite have plenty of money ... then forget any change." Any money that's around, says Tchouprov, "goes immediately to the next corruption scheme. This is the reality. Russia needs crisis. No crisis, no change."

Until then, Tchouprov is certain that when it comes to assertive action on climate change, one of the most powerful countries in the world will remain "somewhere on the side of the road where mega trends are passing the state, disappearing on the horizon."



Lucy E J Woods is a freelance journalist recently returned from Russia, who specialises in domestic and foreign environmental and energy reporting. She is currently reporting from South East Asia.

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