Friday, November 26, 2021

Russia launches forest plan as a testing ground for action to tackle climate change

MOSCOW (AP) – Russian Island north of Japan has become a testing ground for Moscow’s efforts to reconcile its valuable fossil fuel industry with the need to do something about climate change.

More than two thirds of Sakhalin Island is covered with forests. With the Kremlin’s blessing, local authorities have set themselves an ambitious goal of making the island – the largest in Russia – carbon neutral by 2025.

Growing trees will absorb as much global warming carbon dioxide as the island’s half a million inhabitants and factories produce – an idea the Russian government, 4,000 miles west in Moscow, hopes to apply to an entire country that has more woodlands than any other. country. another nation.

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“The economic structure of Sakhalin, the large proportion of forest land on the territory and the distribution of carbon balance reflect the overall situation in Russia,” said Dinara Gershinkova, Adviser to the Governor of Sakhalin on Climate and Sustainable Development. “Thus, the results of the experiment on Sakhalin will be representative and applicable to the entire Russian Federation.”

The plan reflects a marked shift in climate change sentiment in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin joked about global warming in 2003, saying that Russians would be able to “spend less on fur coats and the grain harvest would increase” if it continued.

Last year, he acknowledged that climate change “requires real action and much more attention,” and has sought to position the world’s largest exporter of fossil fuels as a leader in the fight against global warming.

The key to this idea is the country’s vast forests.

“In an effort to build a carbon-neutral economy no later than 2060, Russia relies, among other things, on the unique resources of forest ecosystems available to us and their significant capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen,” Putin said. in a video message November 2 for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. “After all, our country accounts for about 20% of the world’s forests.”

Scientists say that the natural removal of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere will indeed play a key role in the fight against global warming.

Many countries attending the climate summit rely on some form of emission absorption to meet their goals of reaching net zero by 2050, that is, emitting only as much greenhouse gases as can be captured naturally or artificially again.

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But experts say the math behind such calculations is notoriously vague and subject to manipulation by governments in an interest in making their emissions figures look good.

“Russia makes a huge contribution to the absorption of global emissions – both its own and others – due to the absorptive capacity of our ecosystems, primarily forests, which is estimated at 2.5 billion (metric) tons of CO2 equivalent per year. “, – said Victoria Abramchenko, Deputy Prime Minister for Environment, speaking at a recent conference in St. Petersburg.

The figure came as a surprise to academics contacted by the Associated Press. This is five times more than the 535 million metric tons of CO2 capture that Russia reported to the UN climate office in 2019.

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Natalya Lukina, director of the Center for Forest Ecology and Productivity, a government-funded research institute, said the estimates are actually speculations because “there is no real hard data.”

“Unfortunately, our official information on forest lands is 25 years old, then this data was somehow updated, but there were no direct measurements,” she said.

One problem is that no one knows how many trees grow in the forests of Russia.

Last year, his forestry authority completed an inventory that took 13 years and cost at least $ 142 million, but it has not been made public or shared with the scientific community.

The network of emission monitoring stations in Russia is also limited, Lukina said.

Vadim Mamkin, a scientist who maintains one of 11 greenhouse gas measurement masts in the Tver region, said the carbon balance of such old forests is “usually near zero,” although the numbers vary by about 10% from year to year.

Forest fires, burning millions of hectares of forest, are another increasingly acute problem. According to Sergei Bartalev, head of the Boreal Ecosystem Monitoring Laboratory at the Space Research Institute, forests that accumulate carbon for decades suddenly become large sources of emissions from combustion, eliminating the absorption effect.

Such fires are becoming more frequent in Russia, in part due to climate change.

A record 13.1 million hectares have been burned this year, resulting in 970 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions, according to the European Union’s Copernicus program – almost double the last recorded absorption.

Fire protection has become a priority in Moscow’s new low-carbon development strategy.

Ahead of the climate summit, Putin announced that Russia plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 – a target similar to the targets set by China and Saudi Arabia – but ten years after the mid-century target set by the US and the EU.

Scientists say ending additional greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is the only way to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping Earth warming below the catastrophic 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

Russia sent a large delegation to the Glasgow summit, although Putin himself was not present.

Environmental campaigns and other countries that are wary of giving Moscow unimpeded access while they ramp up their own efforts to cut emissions will closely follow the proposals of Russian diplomats.

Vasily Yablokov, head of the energy and climate sector at Russia’s Greenpeace, said that Russia’s forest calculations will play a key role in its climate plan, and he fears that estimates will be made in a way that “fits in with”.

One of the reasons Russia has a vested interest in minimizing its reported emissions before the United Nations is the prospect of an EU increase in carbon tariffs on imports from countries deemed to be insufficiently climate conscious.

“The role of the forest, unfortunately, is being overestimated,” said Alexei Kokorin, head of the climate and energy program at WWF Russia. “It would be good to believe that Russia can increase absorption as envisaged in the draft strategy, and we will all do our best to achieve this, but it looks like this is too much.”

Jordaens reported from Glasgow, Scotland.

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