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Boris Efimovich Nemtsov

Boris Efimovich NemtsovNemtsov

Russia's environmental problems

Climate change is not a topic that enjoys popular attention in Russia, although it will have a serious impact on Siberia and through that on the Russian environment. Maybe the consequences of climate change are not very important to Russians because the current environmental problems are already affecting the people today. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt

Russia was represented twice in a 2007 study of the top ten of the worst polluted areas in the world with Dzerzhinsk and Norilsk. Surely these two examples could be seen as extremes, but elsewhere the quantities of toxins in the environment have also already exceeded the minimum to require counteraction. In many regions, an urgent need for action exists. The Russian state mobilizes slowly and even then just for economic reasons. Russian NGOs and citizens' initiatives have in the meantime already taken the lead.

Guilty industry

In Russia, the biggest polluters are, like in most countries, the industry. They disregard most of the legislative demands and harm both the environment and the people in the affected areas. The residents are often not aware of the danger of toxic substances in the air and the water. Last year, the NGO Green Patrol found out that the aluminum plant of the company RusAl is blowing cancer-causing substances in the air in Krasnoyarsk, far above all limits. Chemical waste is directed into the Yenissei, one of the longest rivers in Russia.

Another popular example is Lake Baikal with its local cellulose plant. It is an old plant built in the 1960s. Here, toxic substances are getting into the lake through a leaking collecting tank, threatening the whole ecosystem. In 2010, the plant was allowed to become operational again contrary to all protests of environmental activists. The plant’s role as the single employer and generator of electricity and heat for the city Baikalsk presented a problem for the opponents. The 10,000 inhabitants of the city, which was founded in Soviet times, are dependent on the plant. In this case it was not the usual conflict between environmental protection and the economic efficiency of a company, but rather environmental protection as a supposed threat to the social existence of a whole city.

Natural disasters accumulate

The topic of global warming is not on the top of the agenda in Russia. The effects of the climate change, however, are already noticeable today. The 2010 forest fires were not only covered by Russian media, but also worldwide. Moscow lay under a thick, barely breathable smog blanket. 1.2 Million hectares of forest burned, but as not all fires were reported, the Russian authorities assume that much more areas were damaged.

The increasing temperatures are causing additional problems like the melting of the permafrost. The softening base will damage houses, buildings, streets, pipelines and many more facilities. The infrastructure will need billions of dollars of investment to counteract the effects in the coming decades. Damaged pipelines especially present a danger for the environment. The Russian pipeline network already needs refurbishment because natural disasters are added to by old, bursting pipelines. The softening soil could make it worse and contaminate many regions with oil and natural gas.

Inefficient state and economy


In principle, Russia's environmental problems are solvable. As always the country does not lack laws but, rather, enforcement. Often implementation fails because of the lack of financial resources for projects and adequate subsidies for “green” technologies. Corruption poses one of the most serious hindrances because most of the environmental problems are violating established Russian law. Corrupt authorities and a corrupt justice system make it easy for companies to disregard them.

Many environmental problems result from a lack of investment in new, modern production complexes. Saving energy and more efficient industrial complexes which would produce less waste are necessary in most branches.

Money both from the owners and foreign investors who push for a modernization of the Russian economy is important in this area. This would not only be an economically smart investment, but also ecologically valuable.

Is it getting better?

However, not everything goes badly in Russia. Positive developments are already taking place even though they are only a beginning. The Russian state has laid some important foundations despite the corruption, poorly conceived instruments and a complicated implementation. With both the climate doctrine and the energy law from 2009, the negative effects of the climate change are no longer ignored. Additionally, the energy law is intended to end the waste of energy; the goal is to waste 40 percent less energy until 2020. The first regulations have been formulated, but their implementation remains to be seen.

Russia's accession to the WTO promises some support. The Russian market will open slowly in the coming seven years until 2019, but the pressure is already increasing. The economy needs to modernize and end inefficiencies, especially in the area of power consumption, in order to be competitive. Modernization therefore becomes a question of economic survival. But the pressure increases also from society. Increasingly, environmental movements like NGOs are founded in Russia. Signs exist for a positive ecological change, but require further support.