The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, and no one is seeing this more clearly than Russia. Home to more than a fifth of the planet’s forests, the world’s fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, Russia has experienced two consecutive years of record-breaking wildfires that released emissions equivalent to those of medium-sized countries like Spain. Additionally, permafrost is thawing fast, damaging infrastructure and housing. However, it seems as though Russia has no plans to invest heavily in renewable energy, choosing instead to focus on natural gas, which is generally non-renewable. How will being left behind in the global dash for clean energy affect the country?
Permafrost, which covers about half of Russian land, is thawing fast, threatening to cause damages of up to USD$2.3 billion a year, and $84 billion in total by 2050. The Siberian tundra stores an estimated 1 700 gigatons of planet-warming carbon dioxide, twice the amount currently in the atmosphere. Much of it could be released as the ground unfreezes.
Aleksey Chekunkov, the man in charge of developing Russia’s Arctic north, isn’t too concerned. “We have to be realistic, we are the largest country in the world,” the minister for development of the Arctic and Far East said in a video interview. “Solar is not an option for the Arctic region and wind energy isn’t constant.” He adds that “the Arctic is warming faster than the continent—this has a very negative potential, but also a very positive one.”
Russia is more preoccupied with the melting ice of the Arctic and the economic benefits it will bring. The country has the world’s largest reserves of liquified natural gas, and this melting ice in the Arctic means that it can export more of the gas to other countries. It could also potentially increase oil production but warnings from climate experts that both activities could accelerate global warming haven’t rattled Russia’s leaders. While LNG burns cleaner than coal or oil, it still releases emissions. As more countries look for alternatives to coal, Russia is hoping that demand for the gas will increase.
Chekunkov says adamantly, “Moving north and east is a job Russia has been doing for four and a half centuries- we know weather and nature are challenging up there. We will be living, working and developing our north in all scenarios.”
The Northern Sea Route, which links northern Europe and Russia to China through the Arctic seas, used to be blocked by ice most of the year, with navigation only possible in summer months, from June to October. However, this year, record-low sea ice and an increasingly powerful Russian fleet of icebreakers meant the season was the longest ever, from May to February.
Chekunkov says, “We believe navigation can be made year-round and we’re not waiting until it happens climate-wise. We’re building the most powerful fleet of nuclear icebreakers in the world. All-year navigation could be a reality by mid-century.”
However, by this point, economic benefits will be likely outweighed by the devastating impacts on the planet caused by climate change, such as rising sea levels, corals and forests shrinking significantly and hotter and more humid climate, which will lead to more extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires.
Russia is aware of this- Chekunkov’s ministry has a team of 68 scientists that developed a digital model of the Arctic economy and ecology with about 10 000 different parameters, 800 of which can be tweaked to simulate different scenarios. But the country is still not doing enough to slow global warming; if all countries followed its approach, global temperature rise from pre-industrial times would exceed 4ºC by the end of the century—the worst-case scenario outlined by scientists.
However, Chekunkov adds to his reluctance for Russia to focus on renewable energy by saying “we need to be realistic about the size of the country. Building a grid for a land that has on average one person per square kilometre is not always economic. Unless we see a major breakthrough in the technology of batteries and on moving power from one place to another, I believe LNG is the best possible solution.”
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Entire regions in Russia are dependent on coal or oil for jobs and the social infrastructure that companies still maintain, a legacy of the Soviet era. In recent years, Russia has bet its economic and geopolitical future on natural gas, building new pipelines to China, Turkey and Germany. It wants to own a quarter of the global LNG market, up from 0% in 2008 to around 8% today, especially as oil and gas producers are struggling to make a profit amid falling crude oil prices.
Konstantin Simonov, director of the National Energy Security Fund, a Moscow consultancy whose clients include major oil and gas companies, says, “What’s the alternative? Russia can’t be an exporter of clean energy, that path isn’t open for us. We can’t just swap fossil fuel production for clean energy production, because we don’t have any technology of our own.”
In Russia, natural gas will always be cheaper than renewable energy and oil prices could rebound once the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic recede. Last week, Brent crude traded at $69 per barrel, up from lows of $16 last April.
However, according to Igor Makarov, who heads the world economy department at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics says that holding on to Russia’s fossil fuels riches risks “huge costs and missed opportunities.”
He says, “This perception Russia is a loser in the green transition, that is just in our minds. The best way out of the situation is to understand that Russia has a lot of opportunities to win from the green transition and that it’s in Europe’s interest to help Russia do it. It’s much more efficient to reduce carbon emissions in countries where reduction is cheaper.”
Thankfully, Russia’s big private energy and metals companies have started working on greening their businesses due to pressure from international investors. Companies from Arctic LNG specialist Novatek PJSC to state nuclear energy company Rosatom are looking at how to monetise hydrogen production, once the technology is available. However, Russia has no carbon pricing mechanism, giving companies little incentive to pay a higher price for clean energy. The industry also has no government support, making hopes of building an export business difficult to realise.
The government expects to be moving 80 million metric tons of cargo through Arctic waters by 2024, up from 32 million in 2020. The passage could be open year-round to ordinary ships by 2050.
While its reason for not investing in renewable energy is somewhat understandable, Russia should not be as dismissive as it is towards renewable technologies. It could start by importing renewables, which could hopefully supplement and later replace its use of coal. Because Russia is in such a precarious position in terms of its proximity to the Arctic as well as melting permafrost, focusing on mitigating climate change is profoundly important for the country to avoid devastating economic impacts.
Featured image by: Flickr