Climate Change and Siberia: No Time for Climate Inaction

Climate Change and Siberia: No Time for Climate Inaction

. 9 min read

In August 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Paper 1 as a “Code Red” for humanity with “deafening alarm bells.” Amidst the backdrop of such influential figures in international politics making these dramatic statements, global leaders continue to wrestle with difficult questions about their respective nations’ climate strategies for the future. Russia’s Siberia is presently experiencing catastrophic impacts of climate change, and responsible governance is essential to protecting the livelihoods of locals and preserving economic and environmental health.

To this point, however, it seems that the Russian government’s response to the issue is inadequate, and the most vulnerable residents of Siberia stand to lose the most as a result of this inaction. Absent a strong push from international nations that will motivate Russia to strongly pursue green technologies and a comprehensive climate plan, the future looks bleak for the vast frost-ridden region. Spanning from the Ural mountains in the west and the Pacific Ocean in the east, geological and meteorological manifestations of climate change contribute to growing challenges for sustaining population centers and industry. The most critical concerns arise due to the melting of permafrost, ground that remains below freezing for at least two consecutive years, and is presently beneath nearly ⅔ of Russian territory.  

The Damaging Impacts of Climate Change on Russia

The dangers of melting permafrost manifest themselves in a plethora of ways. One effect is reflected in infrastructure failings: in May 2020, a petrochemical storage tank near the industrial city of Norilsk leaked 20,000 tons of toxic oil product into the nearby Ambarnaya river, causing President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency. Investigators concluded that the leak was due to the weakening of a support column caused by melting of permafrost layers in which the tank was anchored. The incident resulted in a US$2 billion fine levied on the tank’s owner, Norilsk Nickel, with much of the amount going towards “[improving] the environmental situation” in the area impacted by the spill. The fine constituted the largest ever issued for an environmental disaster in Russia.

A more dramatic impact of permafrost melting is the formation of large “gas emission” craters which dot the Siberian landscape. Scientists have determined that these craters form explosively, launching earthen material hundreds of feet into the air, beliefs corroborated by local reindeer herders. While the exact mechanism is unknown, the general cause is gas buildup beneath the surface, which accumulates due to the melting of permafrost and results in explosive crater formation if pressure increases beyond a certain point. While these craters have yet to cause injury or death, scientists have identified nearly 7,000 bubbles of gas just below the surface which could possibly explode, and oil pipelines have been visibly pushed up by these bubbles, as well. The risks to the oil industry posed by these craters are in addition to pre-existing threats relating to the melting permafrost; studies have found that 45 percent of hydrocarbon extraction fields are located in areas where ground thawing could have major infrastructure damage.

There are major economic and security implications if oil infrastructure is damaged. Pipelines in the Yamal Peninsula, along Russia’s northern Arctic coast, as well as the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline (ESPO) are at risk of damage. 43 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue was derived from oil and gas in 2015, and in that same year, 75 percent and 60 percent of Russian natural gas and crude oil exports, respectively, were transported for use in Europe. Tensions already exist between EU nations and Russia in regards to energy supply, with European officials accusing Russia of politically motivated withholdings of gas supplies and engaging in market manipulation to drive up prices. This comes in the context of general unease about Russia’s potential for wreaking energy havoc in Europe by shutting down pipelines at will as an extortion strategy, reflecting Europe’s energy insecurity. As such, any damage to oil pipelines or facilities that results in prolonged reductions in oil supply to Europe could very well lead to a major crisis in the continent.

While the oil tank collapse and gas emission craters have taken place in uninhabited areas, this is not true of all impacts of melting permafrost. On the day to day level, for residents in Siberia and Russia’s north, there is a clear threat to daily lifestyles. Topographical degradation of land is challenging farmers, as melting permafrost causes areas of terrain to sink, leading to land pockmarked by swamps and small lakes. This terrain cannot be tilled or used for animal grazing, forcing farmers to move to locations that are more suitable. Homes are also vulnerable to these environmental effects. In Norilsk, a local official stated in 2016 that 60 percent of buildings in the city had been “deformed” due to melting permafrost, and at that point, 100 buildings had been vacated due to permafrost thaw-related damage. By 2050, it is estimated that 54 percent of all Russian residential buildings will be “negatively impacted” as permafrost continues to melt.

An evolving concern proves even more chilling than these infrastructure woes: the risk of diseases and bacteria being released from the thawing ground. In an incident in 2016 in the Yamalo-Nenets region in Russia’s far north, a child was killed due to anthrax, and 100 suspected cases were hospitalized with symptoms, dozens of Indigenous Nenets were relocated, and nearly 2,300 reindeer were found dead. The cause of the outbreak was linked to the exposure of a rotting reindeer carcass buried 75 years ago; as the permafrost melted, spores of anthrax reached the surface and eventually spread to the Nenets. In 2014 and 2015, scientists revived and reproduced viruses from within the permafrost that were as much as 30,000 years old. While these were deemed non infectious to humans, researchers did not rule out the existence of similarly frozen viruses that could impact humans.

Climate Change Amidst Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Rights

The risks of permafrost-originating disease in rural localities, sinking buildings and infrastructure, and increased flood risks will impact all who are living in Siberia, but will have especially damaging impacts on Russia’s Indigenous population. For Indigenous peoples, a livelihood connected to the environment fulfills “culturally specific needs such as emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being,” as well as providing shelter and income sources. Necessitated relocation would thus deal a major blow to the strength of traditional cultures. Even in cases of flood inundations attributed to earlier spring ice melts, Indigenous residents resisted abandoning their homes due to the fear that they would “lose everything” and see their cultures disappear.

Despite these imminent threats to Indigenous populations, the Russian government has cracked down on organizations calling for greater attention to the issues facing Indigenous peoples. In 2012, the Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) Indigenous rights group was temporarily shut down amid allegations that the group’s statues had “a lack of correspondence” with federal law. While the organization was reopened in 2013, the restructuring entailed installing a Russian parliamentary deputy as director, limiting the group’s abilities. In 2019, a Russian court ordered the dissolution of a prominent Russian Indigenous rights group, the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (CSIPN). The organization was alleged to have violated Russian laws by filing incomplete paperwork relating to their status as an alleged “foreign agent.” CSIPN had previously renounced foreign funding in 2015, making the court proceedings seem “strange” according to the group’s lawyer.

CSIPN’s leader, Rodion Sulyandziga, suspected political motivations behind the ruling, citing the conflict of interest between Indigenous peoples and corporations. Sulyandziga has been harassed by Russian border officials, had his passport confiscated, and been arrested and questioned by police. Questionable crackdowns on Indigenous rights organizations and the use of intimidation tactics against their leaders, amid such dire climatic threats, do not bode well for the Nenets and other Indigenous groups. These crackdowns diminish the ability of Indigenous leaders to publicize the plight of their peoples, amplifying the damage that climate change can do in potentially destroying Indigenous cultures.

President Putin on Climate

This political drama is being accompanied by evolving governmental positions on climate change. Putin’s public messaging has begun to pivot from promoting scientifically unproven theories, such as stating that "cosmic changes" are contributing to climate change and mocking the issue by expressing concern for worm populations near wind turbine installations. Putin has now noted how phenomena such as an unprecedented quantity of forest fires in Siberia are likely due to climate change and expressed a desire to collaborate with the US to confront increasing global temperatures. Officials speaking to the Japan Times indicated that the Russian COP26 delegation would be focusing on standards for calculating CO2 emissions and forest absorption, as well as exploring the idea of “rat[ing] nuclear power as green for carbon accounting purposes,” steps which are far from comprehensive solutions to the crisis. However, Putin’s decision not to attend brings into question his true commitment to aggressively confronting climate change.  

In terms of policy, Putin has urged the development of solar power stations as well as green hydrogen technology, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin warned mining and metal companies that they may be subject to a carbon tax in the future. However, on a macro-scale, future climate strategy and planning in Russia hinges on yet-to-be-determined science. It is estimated in the current strategy that Russian emissions could rise by 8.2 percent by 2050, with absorption of carbon by ecosystems being used to neutralize this rise. In total, Russia hopes to double the amount of carbon counted as absorbed. To accomplish this, along with relatively standard plans to improve wildfire fighting and alter forestry management, Russia also intends to utilize neural networks and artificial intelligence to develop “modern mathematical models” for estimating absorption, a proposal which some environmentalists believe is not based on proven data or studies. Changing the formulas used to measure absorption is a rather unorthodox approach, and one which seems bound to draw scrutiny and raise doubts about the legitimacy of Russia’s plans for the future.

The Situation on the Ground

As a testament to the questionable nature of Russia’s climate planning, The Climate Action Tracker, an independent climate science publication, has judged Russia’s current strategy to be “critically insufficient,” the lowest rating in their methodology. The apparent lack of governmental initiative to address this is a major cause for concern—despite all of Russia’s territory, only about 0.2 percent of Russian energy production is generated from wind and solar power. Nuclear and hydropower consists of 36 percent of Russia’s total energy production, with plans to increase this to around 43 percent by 2050. As the percentage of global electricity generation constituted by renewables must be between 70 and 85 percent to restrain global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there is clearly much to be done for Russia to be on this track.

Putin has stated that Russia will be carbon neutral by 2060, and a small scale of a possible approach Russia may take is seen in the goals to make Russia’s Sakhalin Island carbon neutral by 2025. Judging from the political pressures of oil and gas executives, it does not seem as if this goal is feasible on even the scale of Sakhalin, an island of just under half a million residents. Investing in a transition to renewable power would constitute a conflict of interest in Sakhalin, as Governor Valery Limarenko promised to oil and gas executives that he would avoid doing “anything” which could halt development of their corporate projects.

While potential ideas include renewable energy plants, hydrogen power, emissions trading, and development of carbon sinks to absorb carbon emissions, the latter two ideas seem most plausible given the Governor’s statements. Even so, it is worth being aware that this ambitious goal—an entire Russian island that is carbon neutral four years from now—could well end up being nothing more than words, merely constituting a facade that masks governmental inaction.

To these ends, it is extremely optimistic to assume that Russia will comprehensively tackle climate change on its own accord. It is more reasonable to expect that foreign pressures, particularly from the EU, will provide enough of an economic impetus to force a more involved approach. A 2021 EU proposal for confronting climate change calls for a carbon border adjustment mechanism, essentially requiring EU importers to pay the carbon price that would have been levied had a particular good been produced in the EU. If Russia continues to have a high polluting energy balance, with minimal renewable sources, it will soon become costly for Russia to continue exporting this environmentally undesirable energy. This could eventually spur Russia to adopt more green energy as part of its energy mix, but since the tax would not take effect until 2026, and because the concept of the tax is being intensely critiqued by nations such as the United States, China, and Russia, it’s hard to maintain optimistic that foreign pressure will motivate a change in Russia’s energy policy in the near future.

Looking Forward

Skepticism surrounding Russia’s climate change strategy is certainly warranted; while it is possible, with proper planning and political will, for Russia to become carbon neutral and a global leader in addressing climate change, the likelihood of this occurring seems extremely far-fetched. Presently, plans in Sakhalin to address climate change are the most well developed in Russia, which is to say, extremely hopeful and incongruous with other policies being pursued. Despite the plans for a carbon neutral Sakhalin, the island’s 2035 Strategy for Socioeconomic Development prioritizes the expansion of coal fields and the construction of oil refineries, as well as cement and chemical factories. It is clear that in Russia, conflicting goals—a carbon neutral future and a continued investment in extremely environmentally harmful energy sources—will likely be pursued simultaneously. But the people of Siberia have little time to wait: their lives and livelihoods are at critical risk. Without a concerted nationwide push from Moscow towards a climate sensitive Russia, it seems that Putin’s changing attitudes towards climate could end up being nothing more than words.