Where Russia falls short in fight against climate change | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 04.11.2017
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Where Russia falls short in fight against climate change

The UN's annual climate conference is being held this November in Bonn. How does the fight for climate protection look in Russia? Experts complain of massive environmental problems and activists of government pressure.

The global agreement signed at the UN's climate talks in 2015 aims to stop average global temperatures from increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2050. With the exception of the United States, which withdrew from the accord over the summer, 195 countries, Russia among them, have pledged to fight global warming.

Alexey Kokorin, of the World Wildlife Fund, said Russia had indeed begun implementing the terms of the agreement at home — at least formally. He says that Russia has been providing financial assistance to developing nations and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to reduce greenhouse gases. "But that is all just part of the country's foreign policy public relations program. It really doesn't do much in the way of stopping climate change, regardless of whether or not we keep our promises," he emphasizes. Russian industry will remain the world's most energy intensive until at least 2030.   

Scientists say the best way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would be to come up with a new energy strategy and to better protect Russia's forests. Despite the fact that Russian forests can only counterbalance 20 percent of today's emissions, experts say that it is imperative that the country do more to protect them. "Three quarters of our forests should be protected and one quarter opened to commercial logging. But forestry management must be greatly improved," says Kokorin.

Reforestation is a popular topic in Russia. School children, soccer players, office workers, parliamentarians – even Vladimir Putin – all plant trees. The government's 2017 environmental program actually aims to reforest some 800,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) of land. "Offset planting is not bad, but trees are not just planted to fight global warming. A new tree needs 70 or 80 years before it is fully grown," as Kokorin stresses. He adds that it is therefore very important to maintain existing forest.

Carbon dioxide

'Caused by humans'

Russia's old-growth forests are not only threatened by logging, but also by fire. The country has lost almost 45 million hectares of forest in the past 15 years alone. "More than 90 percent of forest fires are caused by humans," said Mikhail Kreindlin, of Greenpeace Russia. About 8 million hectares have already been lost to fire in 2017. In 2012, the worst year ever in Siberia, between 13 and 17 million hectares were lost – that is an area half the size of Germany.

"Authorities play down fire statistics," Kreindlin said. "Sometimes they are reduced thousandfold." The result is that far less money is put toward firefighting than is required. Furthermore, says the expert, Russia changed forest fire extinguishing guidelines in 2015. That has given local authorities the power to declare that fires in certain areas pose no threat to humans and the fires are therefore simply allowed to burn unimpeded.

Kreindlin said there was also a connection between fires and logging. Forests in which more trees are harvested tend to burn more often. He points to regions such as Transbaikalia, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk as examples thereof but also Russia's long border with China, which has been the site of massive fires. That led Beijing to essentially prohibit logging in its northernmost regions, although China continues to purchase Russian wood from the area.

Environmentalists' tough fight

According to Greenpeace, about 300 trained firefighters in Russia regularly put out blazes in nature reserves. Although such activists are principally supported by the country's Ministry for Civil Defense, the government itself makes it very difficult for environmentalists to stage large demonstrations. "Demonstration laws have been tightened," says Kreindlin, adding: "But we still collect signatures to protest against projects that cause great environmental damage, such as the rerouting of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline through the Kurgalsky nature reserve on the Gulf of Finland, where valuable forest is being destroyed." 

There are no demonstrations or protests in Russia today that can compare to those that took place between 2007 and 2012 in an attempt to save the Khimki Forest. Yaroslav Nikitenko participated in protests against a motorway that was planned there — one that would have meant the loss of the forest north of Moscow. He is convinced that government propaganda keeps people from getting involved in environmental protection. "Television programs tell people: Those fighting government environmental policies are foreign agents and traitors," says the activist.

"Back when we were fighting to save the Khimki Forest," Nikitenko said, "anyone could come to the site and demand to see documents and plans." The government has since put an end to such openness. Nikitenko said the state had changed environmental protection laws to suit the interests of developers. "That's what happened on Lake Baikal back in 2010, when Russia's Supreme Court decided in favor of a paper factory, allowing them to just dump waste into the lake," Nikitenko said. "But that was also the case in the construction surrounding the Sochi Olympics. Rather than making building projects conform to existing laws, the government changed laws to suit the building projects."

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