Russia keeps piling up environmental woes, but all hope is not lost: Summing up year 2008

Publish date: January 13, 2009

MOSCOW - Even though last year brought many a victory to Russian environmentalists, many more new challenges appeared, they say. Last December, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace Russia called a press conference to publicize the results of their study of Russia’s ecological performance in 2008. As a poll conducted at the same time revealed, the Russian population shares these concerns: 80 percent of respondents said they were worried about Russia’s environmental problems.

Major projects, major headaches
On December 23rd in Moscow, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace Russia held a press conference to make public what environmentalists believe to be 2008’s most significant results on Russia’s environmental record. Most ecologists, including those present at the meeting, agree that one of the best achievements of the past year was ensuring that three of the sites intended as part of the grounds for the future Olympic Games to take place in the southern city of Sochi in 2014 – along with accompanying infrastructure – be moved from the conservation areas in the Caucasus, where they were initially placed by project developers. Yet, the preparations for Sochi-2014, now in full swing, still pose a challenge for environmentalists.

“A lot of new laws are supposed to be passed (in 2009), which will alter significantly the legal framework in the sphere of protection of the environment,” said WWF Russia’s director Igor Chestin. In Chestin’s view, it is imperative to “undertake all possible efforts so that the right and effective laws are passed, and then make sure that these laws are applied correctly.”

The Olympic frenzy is only one among a whole range of major projects currently under implementation in Russia that threaten to put at risk unique nature preserves, or bring detriment to the well-being of the native minorities living in Russia’s North, or else harm the country’s rare species.

First, there is the Sakhalin-1 project operated by Exxon Neftegaz – an affiliate of Exxon Mobil Corporation. Sakhalin-1 is an oil and gas development project on the northeast shelf of Sakhalin Island, declared commercial in October, 2001. Total recoverable reserves here are estimated to be 2.3 billion barrels of oil and 17.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Sakhalin-1 is considered to be a danger to the rare species of grey whales populating the area.

Other projects include plans by oil companies to start exploratory drilling on the most environmentally precious area of the shelf of the Sea of Okhotsk, off West Kamchatka, which is seen to potentially endanger some 25 percent of Russia’s entire fish reserves, most notably, those of salmon.
Environmentalists are gravely concerned about the newest “Project of the Century” on Russia’s energy production agenda – the prospected construction of the enormous Evenki Hydroelectric Power Plant, slated to be erected on the river Nizhnyaya Tunguska near Krasnoyarsk in Southwest Siberia. It is feared that the plant will inundate hundreds of thousands of hectares of the area’s forests, as well as territories inhabited by indigenous populations.

Too few experts, too little money

As another major event of last year, environmentalists pointed out Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s decree to enhance Russian economy’s energy efficiency by 40 percent by 2020. Yet, despite the grand, environmentally friendly statements made by the authorities, state expenses earmarked for the protection of the environment have gone down threefold since 1993, said Greenpeace Russia, as have rates established for fines for spills and harmful discharges.

One of the pressing issues added most recently to the environmental agenda is what kind of effects the global financial crisis may have on the ecological state of affairs. As the participants of the December press conference ventured, the economic slump’s impact could be both positive and negative. On the one hand, expenses on the population’s health and safety may end up among those budget items that will see the very first cuts when industry enterprises start tightening the belts across the board. On the other, it could be exactly the shortage of funds that may force the government to revisit the current energy strategy adopted by the country and reject the expensive and environmentally costly projects envisioning the construction of new hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.

“Though certain steps to improve the environmental conditions in the country have indeed been made by the top authorities, nothing good, unfortunately, can be said about the state system of environmental protection on the whole,” said at the press meeting Ivan Blokov, head of programmes at Greenpeace Russia.

According to Greenpeace, Russian environmental protection agencies are in a state of collapse. One of the reasons behind this crisis, ecologists say, is the weakened environmental protection legislation, which has, for instance, produced such laws as a recent bill to allow renting out nature preserves and national parks.

Another blow to the state environmental protection system has been delivered by drastic cuts in those agencies’ work force: As of December last year, according to Greenpeace’s data, no more than 3,000 employees across the whole of Russia were mandated to perform inspectoral duties. As a result, the incidence of ecological crime in the country has since 1990 surged by as much as 15 times.

Russians worried enough to take matters in their own hands
On December 23rd, the same day that Greenpeace and WWF shared their concerns with the press, the Public Opinion Foundation published the results of a poll conducted across Russia over the previous month. The poll was to determine what it was that Russians really think of ecological problems in the country.

The poll revealed that Russian citizens on the whole feel very anxious about the current environmental situation: Most of those polled – 78 percent – said they were concerned about it. The majority of the respondents – 70 percent – also said they consider global warming to be an important issue. An overwhelming majority – 80 percent – also said that Russia today is not undertaking enough measures to solve its ecological problems.

A commensurate number of the respondents – 84 percent – believe that ordinary citizens must take part in providing solutions to environmental challenges. Yet at the same time, 56 percent were certain they had no influence over how and whether ecological problems could be solved, while almost a third – 31 percent – said they could personally make a difference.

However alarmed Russian citizens feel, though, over a half of those polled – 57 percent – are not ready to pay for improving the ecological conditions in the country, and only 29 percent were willing to open their wallets for such purposes.

Meanwhile, Russian citizens do not intend to shy away from voicing their concerns. As the poll showed, 42 percent have experience participating in various environmental actions, and 33 percent of those with such experience are willing to continue doing so in the future. Almost a half – 48 percent – said they had no experience taking part in public actions, yet 26 percent of these are ready to join in with such events.

As the most recent tendencies demonstrate, when the state continues to be derelict of its duty to control and supervise in the sphere of environmental protection, it falls to Russian citizens to pick up the slack. This is already happening. The story of the vigorous grassroots movement that rose up to save the Khimki Forest near Moscow from a highway that threatened to cut through the conservation area, or the interregional crusade to obtain the status of a nature preserve for the perishing Utrish Forest on the Black Sea, or the campaign by Moscow citizens fighting to keep construction of waste incineration plants out of city bounds – are all good examples.

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