Belgian Ambassador Trouveroy: Europe counts on Russia to work together on climate crisis

Publish date: August 18, 2010

Written by: Angelina Davydova

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – In early August, as the intensifying heat and spreading wildfires were becoming an ever growing threat to Russia’s security, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly acknowledged that climate change had become a gruesome reality for his country. His speech did not go unnoticed in international circles – with Belgium’s Ambassador to Russia Guy Trouveroy taking the opportunity to say that Russia and the European Union (EU)’s cooperation on climate policies were now an absolute necessity.

In an interview he gave live to the popular liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy on August 12, Trouveroy encouraged Russia to step up its climate cooperation with the European Union.

Trouveroy spoke on the air at Ekho Moskvy’s headquarters in Moscow as the Russian capital was probably going through its worst summer yet, with temperatures holding steadily over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and an acrid smog suffocating the city as a result of the peat bogs aflame in its environs.

“This experience was, I must say, quite an experience. I must say that I have never lived in my life in such a situation. But maybe this was my baptism, now I am a true Muscovite,” Trouveroy said. “I am not a climate expert, I’m [just] an average diplomat, but even an average diplomat can notice [that something is wrong with the weather].”

Trouveroy said the unprecedented heat wave and the wildfires Russia had been hit with this summer were just some of the signs of climate change – just like the other climate-related disasters that the world has been experiencing in the past few months.

In those assessments, he seemed to have echoed the sentiments of Russian president Medvedev, who in a surprisingly candid statement posted in early August on the Kremlin’s website said Russia was in for a truly historic lesson.

“Our country has not experienced such a heat wave in the last 50 or even 100 years,” Medvedev said, speaking at an expanded Security Council meeting on fire safety measures being taken to protect Russia’s strategic facilities. “We need to learn our lessons from what has happened, and from the unprecedented heat wave that we have faced this summer.”

“Everyone is talking about climate change now,” Medvedev said. “Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past. This means that we need to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past.”

In his comment on these statements, Trouveroy said that international cooperation on climate issues was “absolutely necessary” – and more to the point, so was climate cooperation between Russia and the European Union.

“We can [conclude] unfortunately that the results of the last climate summits have been not been up to [our expectations]. And we really count on our Russian partners to help the European Union realise its [climate policy] goals as it is a driving force in [the ongoing climate negotiations]. But as you know, many countries still don’t agree with the parameters of the climate crisis we’ve been facing. I think the Russian President is absolutely right, but the international community must unite more,” Trouveroy said.

According to Trouveroy, providing truthful information about climate change is also a top priority. “The press in Western Europe, for instance, has been paying enormous attention to these wildfires [raging] in Russia… They realise that whatever happens here can have some impact on them.”

Indeed, recent reports indicate the smoke from Russia’s burning forests may be moving toward Europe, carried westward by changing winds. On the whole, Trouveroy said, the climate change situation is causing more and more concern for the Western European public, with winters overall becoming erratic and summers “difficult” to survive. In Belgium, in particular, preparations are in progress to protect the coastline from the rising sea level, which will require whole new infrastructure. Rivers that previously never had a drop of water in them suddenly are going over their banks. “Slowly, measures are being taken to react to these […] events,” Trouveroy said.

“Mr. Ambassador put the main emphasis on the need to develop cooperation between Russia and the European Union on issues related to climate change, because these issues far transcend national boundaries and are transnational,” says Elena Kobets, director for development at Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, Environmental Rights Centre “Bellona.”

“It is impossible to develop mitigation programmes that address the anthropogenic impact on climate and achieve some sort of results in them if at least one of the countries takes no part in them. That is especially true for Russia, which has such an immense territory.”

The new Russian reality

And the reality for Russia and its immense territory at the moment is such that Russian officials and scientists only take part in a fraction of international programmes aimed at climate change mitigation. One of the stark examples is the issue of the fast-paced warming in the Arctic – the climate change effects, to which the Arctic is highly vulnerable, are happening at nearly twice the rate there, compared to the rest of the planet. The international expert community has already acknowledged that the region is bearing the brunt of the anthropogenic influences and numerous studies are in progress to get ahead of the situation.

Besides the already known harmful effects of carbon dioxide, the Arctic is also suffering the impacts of so-called short-lived climate forcers – black carbon (or, in more simple terms, soot), methane, and tropospheric ozone. These gases and aerosols are not produced in the Arctic, but are carried to the polar latitudes by air currents moving from warmer regions, causing short-term, but extremely detrimental effects on the climate there. Those include an earlier onset of spring melt, a lengthening of the melt season, changes in the mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet, and a drastic decrease in the Arctic sea ice extent. Because a significant part of the Arctic is Russia’s territory, it necessarily follows that Russia is responsible for a significant portion of the pollution caused by the short-lived forcers there – not to mention the impact these pollutants have on population health and Russia’s economy on the rest of its territory.

The pollution is most severe during spring, when high levels of emissions are produced from fires – both wildfires, as has been happening these past few months in Russia, and agricultural burning, a practice intended to remove crop residues for new planting or clear brush for grazing. Soot, which is generated through incomplete combustion of biomass and fossil fuels, accounts for as much as 30 percent of Arctic warming to date, according to recent estimates, and springtime deposits of black carbon pose a particular threat to the Arctic climate because of their potential to accelerate melting of snow and ice, recent studies showed.

Both wildfires and agricultural burning lack proper record-keeping in Russia, which compounds the problem.

Another risk associated with agricultural fires is that once started, they often become unmanageable, spreading to nearby forests and lands and destroying property. This is a factor too dangerous to overlook in the extreme weather conditions and the heightened fire hazard such as during this summer.

On the other hand, Russia holds membership in the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states on a range of common issues that include, most importantly, those of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. The other Arctic Council members are Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States.

Russia is also among the signees to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe  (UNECE)’s Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and has ratified this convention. Many programmes conducted by the Arctic Council feature the participation of Russian scientists as well, but the Russian scientific community is still to offer specialists who could work shoulder to shoulder with scientists from other Arctic Council member states on the problem of short-lived pollutants in the Arctic. All international scientific events dedicated to this issue take place without Russia’s emissaries there.

Nor are state-supported programmes being developed that could subsidy such studies in Russia and might subsequently pinpoint and promote new technologies in agriculture, energy, and production of oil and gas to lessen the adverse effects of short-lived forcers in the Arctic.

Russia is also yet to sign and ratify the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone, designed to reduce these pollution factors by setting emissions ceilings for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and ammonia, which are to be met by 2010. This protocol is part of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and has been under revision since 2007, a work in progress to be completed by late 2011.

Finally, there are huge gaps in Russian legislation governing the protection of air quality and regulating the practice of springtime agricultural fires. Bellona believes these problems need to be addressed urgently and suggests the following measures.

Bellona’s propositions

Which steps need taking to change the situation for the better? The August fires in Central European Russia, the villages burned to the ground and the unendurable smog that doubled mortality rates in the Russian capital, all point to these solution strategies that must be implemented immediately:

1.    Revising Russia’s federal legislation where it needs a stricter approach to fire prevention, including a direct ban on agricultural fires, and introducing norms and regulations to supervise its implementation or pursue punitive measures in cases of violations;

2.    Determining those federal agencies that will be responsible for enforcing fire prevention and safety policies in natural areas; determining the federal agency that will be charged with keeping records on occurring fires, including agricultural ones.

3.    Including black carbon on the official roster of atmospheric pollutants, thus recognising its harmful impact, and introducing norms and regulations that will set upper allowable limits for black carbon emissions and provide punitive measures for exceeding such limits.

4.    Involving Russia in the negotiations dedicated to revising the Gothenburg Protocol; signing and ratifying the protocol.