COMMENT: Russia hits rock bottom on environmental protection – will it hear the impact?

Bellona archive

Publish date: January 28, 2012

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Russia’s woeful environmental record in the past ten years has earned it the lowest score in a new global ranking of countries’ pollution reduction measures and management of natural resources, a recent Financial Times (FT) story reveals. Given the widespread lack of environmental awareness and a political system steeped in corruption, this is one disastrous achievement – but hardly a surprising one.

“A ‘severe breakdown’ in environmental public health in Russia between 2000 and 2010, as well as a worsening performance on overfishing and forest losses, means it has shown the least improvement of 132 countries studied in a report by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities in the US,” the Financial Times writes in its January 23 story.

Daniel C. Esty, a Yale professor, is quoted by the paper as saying that “[t]his is one of the big stories” of the study and that Russia’s exploitation of its vast natural resources appeared at times to be “unchecked by basic regulation” – hitting its air and water quality.

Even India and China, the world’s fastest growing economies whose industrial boom has resulted in gigantic levels of pollution in the recent years, ended up with better scores than Russia, ranking 116 and 125 respectively, according to the FT story.

Let’s take a minute and ponder this. Last place in the world. Something to give one pause, isn’t it. How did Russia allow itself to fail so spectacularly in its environmental policies?

That the findings of Yale and Columbia’s study were made public during this week’s World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland’s Davos is not a coincidence. As the FT article points out, the report comes “amid concern among some global leaders that environmental issues are receiving less attention at present because of the more immediate focus on economic problems.”

A lack of palpable progress in environmental protection – despite some of the more encouraging examples among a handful of world countries – has delegates rightfully worried. The dreary prospect of depleting water and food supplies – resources whose sustainability and availability overall depend directly on how we treat the environment around us – is a subject now viewed with increasing anxiety in the world.

And here is Russia, possibly the only nation in the world where most still abide by a naïve, if precarious, belief that lamenting the sorry state of the environment is just a variety of a dinner-time weather talk – and that environmental protection is a pastime for the rich and the idle, an ego-pleasing hobby to toy with when there’s nothing better to do.

Alas, whether the environment languishes or prospers is not a matter of happenstance. It is the logical result of a political decision to either make beneficial environmental policies the country’s top priority – or push them down to the bottom of the list of national interests. And today, with ecological well-being becoming an ever pressing issue, more and more countries, rich and poor alike, consider environmental safety to be a matter of utmost importance. And rightly so – deepening ecological problems spell growing economic losses, something that poor nations would no more want suffering than the rich do.

And only in Russia do the ruling elites neglect the significance of environmental safety for the country’s security, economically and otherwise. There could only be two reasons for that: a lack of appreciation of the exacerbating threat due to poor education – or the profoundly corrupt political system that has established itself in the past ten years, the same system that allows government officials at all levels to use their offices for personal gain and compels them to spend their working hours strengthening and protecting their unimaginably lucrative posts. Or maybe it’s both… In any case, the rest just follows.

In the past decade, the Russian government has managed to finish off what was barely limping along as a system of ecological supervision, essentially destroyed the institution of unbiased environmental impact assessments, and dissolved a fairly independent state agency that was responsible for environmental protection. For Russia, a former superpower that is still nurturing ambitions to make it back to the prestigious club of the world’s most developed and influential, shirking one’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for its citizens is a national disgrace. It signals a green light for huge corporations, both national and foreign, to do whatever they like with the natural resources they can get absolutely uninhibited access to, with complete impunity. On that merit alone, we are a far cry from a developed country – a poor African nation of the middle of last century would be a better comparison. This is a land where money talks, not common sense.

And this is what this money says: A budget generous enough to build dozens of new nuclear reactors and coal power plants, a host of new ecological and health threats to ensure a skyrocketing rate of cancers and other fatal diseases. But the same budget hardly finds a rouble to spare on the modernization of the existing power facilities, which, if upgraded, would supply more energy to consumers while keeping both fuel consumption and dangerous emissions at the same levels as before. In other words, the Russian government has plenty support for environmentally harmful technologies – but no subsidies to help develop such sources of energy that do not lead to greenhouse gas emissions and accumulation of deadly nuclear waste.

Meanwhile, China is set to increase its share of renewables in its total energy complex to 15 percent by 2020, Germany and Denmark are already approaching that figure, and overall in the European Union, green technologies are expected to account for 20 percent of all energy production by 2020. But Russia’s government is of the opinion that all these fancy wind converters and solar panels are just trinkets with no prospects worthy of investing into.    

Indeed, for those who keep lining their pockets with profits from oil, gas, and nuclear energy export, they just might be. But go tell it to the people breathing in fumes from the stacks of nearby coal plants or those drinking radioactive water from the river Techa, near the nuclear reprocessing facility Mayak in the Urals.

In the past ten years, Russia’s government has managed to ramrod through laws that both permit the import of foreign nuclear waste (2001) and allow broad enough latitude for the State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom to build repositories for this and other dangerous waste in any Russian region they choose (2011). All that’s needed for a project of another nuclear dump is the backing of local authorities, which are always ready to do the Kremlin’s bidding. And as for disposing of liquid radioactive waste, pumping it underground does not even require so much as a formal approval from a regional administration.

To be sure, not everything about the Russian ecological legislation is such a complete disaster. For instance, the radioactive waste that Mayak has been dumping in the Techa – which supplies household water for several thousand families living along its banks – is prohibited by Russian law. Alas, this radioactive sludge is apparently unaware that it is illegal, or, one would expect, it would have long stopped seeping into the river.

As sad it might be to admit, Russia has long been doing its best to secure last place in ecological ratings – and is striving hard not to lose it. And it couldn’t have any other, given the political system it has built and continues to live in. Our ecological problems are of a systemic nature. They will not be solved by a scowl thrown at a weak-kneed minister during a government meeting, or a new decree or two, or even a couple of showcase arrests to demonstrate that PR considerations require zero tolerance for embezzlers.    

The longer we ignore our duty to protect the environment, the longer it will take us to find a way out of the ecological dead end we have cornered ourselves into. It is quite possible that this winter, the winter of Russia’s discontent, all those dozens of thousands who have marched out into Moscow and St. Petersburg’s squares and prospects to clamor for political changes are fighting not just for the right to elect legislators and presidents – but the right to choose a future, for years ahead. And the choice is there – either become a civilized European nation by applying all efforts necessary to overcome our ecological crisis, much like Germany did, back when the Rhine was one of the most polluted rivers in the world; or sink heedlessly into a dictatorship such as Belarus, which has little hope of joining the global community but must keep spending enormous amounts cleaning up Chernobyl’s dreadful legacy. The choice is still ours to make.

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Ecodefense, is a frequent contributor to Bellona.