When even Russia starts to believe in climate change, the world really is coming to an end. Yet to everyone’s surprise, that is exactly what happened. Russia just joined the Paris climate accords. This means so many things all at once, but first, we need to get out of the way the fact that a lot of people in the US still don’t believe in climate change. This has just become even more absurd than before, because if even Russia believes in it, how can those people still claim otherwise? In any case, back to Russia. For a long time, Russia had a bit of a funny perspective of climate change, which is something along the lines of “It doesn’t exist, but if it did it would be great for Russia since we can get more oil and gas from areas that are currently hard to explore.” So in its quest to fuel the world’s fossil fuel addiction, Russia built a lot of valuable infrastructure throughout its country.
A bit of background
Let’s start with the basics, because it will come in handy later. Russia is the largest country in the world by landmass, but not as large as a lot of people might think by looking at a standard map of the world, which is warped because you can’t make a globe flat without distorting things. Here is a good link showing that. In Russia, only a small part of the country, the southwest, can be used for farming and livestock. That is why most of the population lives in the western part near Europe and is pretty cut off from the rest of the country by the Ural mountains. The rest of the country is made up of dense forest, mountains, permafrost, and ice, and the population there is mostly around 1 person per square kilometer or less — mostly less. The north side of the the country is all permafrost, which as the name suggests stays frozen permanently and thus makes accessing the world’s oceans through that coast unpractical. Then further south there are regions that keep melting and refreezing depending on the season. This, as well as the dense vegetation, are just two of many reasons why traversing the country is very difficult, with the exception of the railroad located mostly near the southern border. The only benefit of having an empty country this large is that there are precious resources scattered all around that can give a country a big advantage. The biggest advantage thus far has been fossil fuels like oil and gas with pipes and critical infrastructure going from the Siberian region all the way to the (non-northern) corners of Eurasia.
The threats of climate change
The old & less critical
One of the issues that has been plaguing the central and eastern areas pretty much since forever have been forest fires, as they are a natural phenomenon. Technically speaking, if you have nothing in the area and you don’t care about emissions or loss of biodiversity, it’s not that much of a problem. Just let the fire burn itself out, or rain will eventually put out the fire. However, with the climate destabilizing so rapidly, the forest fires have increased in frequency and severity and are becoming more of a menace than before. Also, since the world is now starting to care about things like climate change, emissions, and biodiversity, the country’s prosperity is at risk. It is only a matter of time until the world will refuse Russia’s oil and gas and even start putting pressure on the country, to not only stop producing fossil fuels but also to control all its emissions, including forest fires. That is not the case yet however, since as its forests were burning this summer, Putin refused Trump’s offer to help put out the fires. Although even with all that help it would still be a nearly impossible task.
The new & more immediate threat
It was all over the news this summer, as something a lot of people — including myself — consider the absolute biggest climate change threat out there, both for its potential severity as well as a huge knowledge gap: permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground. It covers the top half of both Canada as well as Russia. There is a top layer of soil that melts and freezes with each season, but everything underneath it remains frozen year round, or at least it used to. This frozen ground has so much methane and CO2 trapped in it that if it starts to melt and release that gas into the atmosphere, we won’t stay under 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius but will likely shoot right past to 4 degrees and above.
When it comes to climate change and the efforts in the past two decades, they show you the polar bears losing their home and ice melting. Obviously that ice is very important, since it reflects sunlight that keeps the earth cool, and because so much ice has accumulated over many millennia the oceans are at the levels they are today, which is something that is also changing. One reason scientists like to focus on the ice is because it’s easy to reach, and it can easily be monitored with satellites and with on the ground sensors. The permafrost, however, is often very hard to reach, hard to measure, and hard to keep track of. It may even be the more immediate threat, but we know relatively little about it compared to the ice caps. One thing is for sure, the permafrost does have a tipping point and its melting will likely cause something called a positive feedback loop where some gas release will cause warming and in turn cause even more gas release, and on and on the cycle will go, quickly shooting us past 2 degrees Celsius. In the last few years, and especially this summer, we have seen that the top layer no longer refreezes in winter, and the deeper permafrost is starting to melt and at a pace much much faster than we ever thought possible. Once again, since the scientific community never really looked into it to the extent that it looked into all the shiny ice melting, we don’t know what will happen or when, but it doesn’t look good.
Now why is this an issue to Russia? Well it does have some people living in those areas that depend on the permafrost for purposes like natural year round refrigeration of goods, but that is not a priority for Russia. The biggest problem is that the permafrost that used to stay frozen is turning into a swamp, and that has a dire consequence. The foundation for all infrastructure is built atop the solid permafrost that never melted. Now that it is melting for the first time, every manmade structure is at risk of collapse. Now while that is life threatening to a lot of people, it also threatens Russia’s main source of income. Oil and gas fields are located under the permafrost and a lot of the pipes are also built on top of permafrost. If the fossil fuel infrastructure collapses as well as the pipes, then that is a financial disaster for it, as well as a potential environmental disaster. Even if the country wanted to keep earning money on the world’s slow demise and eventually slowly switch to renewables, it now suddenly needs to do something immediately to prevent a loss of income and energy generation capacity. As some research notes, the production capacity of all existing facilities has already declined because the foundation can no longer bear the load. Some have declined as little as 2% and some have declined by more than 20% since the 1990s. This also puts at risk all current development plans and facilities that are currently under construction that is supposed to supply oil and gas to China.
Putin’s words on Greta Thunberg & Renewables
You may have heard that Putin criticized Greta Thunberg recently, but unfortunately I must say the media has not done a great job at presenting what the Russian president has said, at best only presenting a sliver of Putin’s response that doesn’t paint the full picture. Here is something you won’t find anywhere else, since we have translated the whole thing for you. The following is what President Putin said, and we will analyze it afterwards.
“I may disappoint you but I do not share everyone’s enthusiasm about Greta Thunberg’s performances. You know, the fact that young people, teenagers, pay attention to controversial issues of today including the problem of ecology is correct and a really good thing, we should totally support them. But when someone makes use of children and teenagers in their own interests, that is definitely worth judging. Especially if someone is trying to make money on this. Now I’m not claiming that this is the case here but we should definitely keep a close eye on this.
“You see nobody explained to Greta that the modern world is a very complicated place that changes at a very fast pace, and many people in Africa or in Asian countries want to live at the same standards of living as say Sweden. But how do we do that? Force them to use the energy of the sun? Which Africa has plenty of. Has anyone explained to her what that costs? Just a moment ago a colleague was talking about oil, everyone I guess knows that oil happens to be the number one source in the energy mix and that it will retain its advantage, in its current form and value for the next 25 years. That is according to data of world experts, yes it will slowly go down, yes renewable energy will grow at a much faster pace, that’s all true and we should strive towards that, but while this technology is accessible for flourishing economies, its not readily available for developing countries. Nonetheless, people want to live there like they do in Sweden and there is no stopping them. Go and explain to them that they still have to live in poverty for another 20 or 30 years and that their kids will be forced to live in poverty, yes, go try to explain that to them.
“We should handle the situation as professionally and realistically as possible. Obviously the emotions (of people and teenagers like Greta) this might result in are unavoidable, but if we want to be effective, we need to handle it professionally. You know I’m sure Greta is a kind and sincere girl, but adults should do everything in their power to not stir up teenagers and kids in extremely controversial problems, we need to protect them from developing these unnecessary emotions that can be destructive to the personality of a developing mind, but in general we should of course support their good ideas connected to the development of clean energy, but these ideas must be rooted in reality and only push this process of change.
“Just recently in a speech I mentioned how we go about this is Russia. Not only did we sign and are wrapping up our implementation of the Paris climate accords, within our country, we are also taking steps aimed at reducing emissions and developing alternative sources of energy. We do this with tools like taxes, incentivizing the development of alternative energy. For example we are developing technologies that turn gas into hydrogen.
But once again, I will repeat that making use of kids to reach even well intentioned goals such as these in this emotionally tough way I think is wrong.”
Putin’s response was a huge mixed bag of everything. Something a transcript can’t really tell you, however, is how much Putin struggled not to use words like climate change, and you could almost literally see his struggle to go against years of conditioning not to acknowledge the issue at hand. Nonetheless, Putin’s answer was as enlightening about Russia’s plans as much as it was disturbing. I could go on to say how wrong he is about Greta and the entire movement, but you already know that, so I will leave that outrage to all your Twitter and Facebook posts and the discussions in the comments. What Putin did give away is the country’s strategy for the next 25 years, and it is not going to be anything good. Many are already claiming that Russia’s Paris climate accord goals and actions are wildly insufficient, but hey, it’s a start nonetheless.
First and foremost, Russia envisions coal, oil, and especially gas as the future of developing African and Asian countries, as well as China and Japan. As Putin said, Russia is working on turning fossil fuels into hydrogen fuels. When most people think of hydrogen fuel, they might think of electrolysis, which is an energy intensive process that creates hydrogen fuel without any emissions that can then be combusted to release only water as a byproduct rather than CO2. However, most hydrogen is currently made from fossil fuels, using a process called steam-methane reforming that effectively makes hydrogen but also creates CO2 as a byproduct. This is not an issue if that CO2 is immediately captured rather than released, and there might be methods to eliminate that byproduct altogether. To further corroborate these plans, one must only look at what oil and gas pipelines Russia is currently constructing or planning to construct as shown on the map above. They lead to China as well as Japan, along with lots of other developing Asian countries, and the remaining question is how or if it plans to get its fossil fuels to Africa like China is currently doing. Another issue that was totally not addressed is how many greenhouse gases get released by drilling and all the pipelines, and if that is a problem that can even be solved.
Using renewables such as solar and wind is already cheaper in many cases and the price will continue to fall, but the world is so big and the time left to solve the climate crisis is so small. It’s not impossible that Russia might get its way and find a market for this. Right now it’s unclear if it will be feasible for Russia to actually do this. Once again it is also a big question if Russia can make sure that none of the greenhouse gases leak into the air because that is what the world will demand. Considering politicians’ current appalling attitudes towards climate change, it is hard to predict what their stance will be on this “clean gas” turned into hydrogen, as only time will tell. One thing is for sure, I prefer true renewables and electric cars, and that is a movement that will be hard to stop as long as the sun keeps shining.