Russia's Environmental Conflicts

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Man is in a conflict with nature. 2015 has been recorded as the hottest year in world history. Climate change is happening right now and countries like Russia should put it high on their agenda because it has the world's largest reserves of forests and is a sanctuary of over one hundred twenty thousand rivers and two million lakes.

Global warming will affect Russia more than other countries. Russian climatologists suggest that climate change is affecting Russia 30% faster than other countries.  Issues like giant methane holes, intense snowmelt floods, extreme weather events that have been predicted by Federal Environment Ministry of Russia will likely bring construction challenges. The energy sector will also likely suffer. For example, power cuts will make poor people suffer more who belong from the colder regions and it can also complicate migration policies.

For a while, Russian scientists had been denying the existence of climate change. To rebut their claims, very recently Greenpeace campaigners in Moscow were demanding the awareness of climate change high on the agenda for the public domain. On a political level though, after the Copenhagen Conference held in 2009, climate change has been in 'some kind of operation' but hasn't been implemented quite well. Many analysts say that Russia is contradicting its climate change commitments, like giving general subsidies for production of fossil fuels. 

Scholarly perceptions on Russia’s environmental problems are limited. On March 2015, Russia became one of the first countries to submit its 'nationally determined contributions' under the United Nations Framework of Climate Change. It announced that it will reduce its carbon emissions by up to 25-30% by the year 2030. Ten years ago, it had also signed the Kyoto Protocol – a multilateral agreement to reduce at least 5% emissions. But these developments are causing controversy because Russia still is one of the largest carbon-intensive economies in the world. From the year 1990 to 2005, Russia failed to keep up with its emission targets.

Russia's weak climate change policy is due to a number of factors which include: prioritisation of economic development over environmental protection, close ties between the state and energy sector, lack of clarity in the legal environment, widespread corruption, weak environment institutions and low level of awareness and concern in the public domain. 

Currently, problems of nuclear waste, deforestation and pollution are largely going unnoticed. In fact, Russia tops world’s deforestation charts from 2000 to 2012, having lost a forest area as equal to Switzerland. In fact, it has the greatest number of polluted cities which are largely attributed to its industry. Volga River which also flows through Europe remains one of the most polluted and the problem is directly linked to economic developments.

In Southern Siberia, farms are dying, trees are felled, and people are leaving. There are tales from these Russian villages where government administration has failed to keep up its promise to deliver gas in all parts of the region. There are no social programmes and unemployment is on the increase. Commodities are imported from Turkey and Israel because that makes them cheaper than building warehouses. There is also a need for investments in agriculture.

One of the greatest problems for indigenous people has also been the network of pipes and plants that pass through the regions where people live. Climate change is affecting traditional ways of life and threatening communities. There is a conflict between indigenous peoples and mining companies.

In Bashkortostan, which lies just south of the Ural mountains, there is a heated tussle going on between Russia’s largest chemical consortia and the local population. For them, the hills are sacred and is a ritual site for certain local tribes like the Yurmat. Therefore some special decisions need to be taken in this tug of war. Public opinion is against these developments.

For indigenous people like the Shors, coal mining means loss of ancestral land, traditional crafts and ways of life. Residents have also been forced to sell their houses and leave. Many are also concerned about public health. Very rarely, mining companies receive a license after an environmental advice. 

However, the biggest challenge has been the unpredictability of weather. There has been a decline in the snow, increase in flooding and destruction of shores of certain rivers and lakes which are causing enormous environmental conflicts across the region.


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