Despite the conventional wisdom that Russia stands to benefit from the climate crisis as warming temperatures open frozen lands for agriculture and natural resources, a new book paints a grimmer picture of the country’s future.
“As permafrost melts, walls built on it fracture, buildings sink, railways warp, roads buckle, and pipelines break. Anthrax from long-frozen reindeer corpses has thawed and infected modern herds. Sinkholes have opened in the melting ground, swallowing up whole buildings,” writes author Sophie Pinkham, in a review of Thane Gustafson’s recent book Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change.
“Ice roads over frozen water, once the only way to travel in some remote regions, are available for ever-shorter periods. The Arctic coast is eroding rapidly, imperiling structures built close to the water,” Pinkham adds.
The apocalyptic climate impacts are likely to strain major sectors of Russia’s economy. Under President Vladimir Putin, the country’s agricultural sector has nearly doubled in size since the 1990s, and agricultural products have become Russia’s second most lucrative export. But although those sales can be expected to continue growing until the end of this decade, the sector’s output will start to decline after that, as increasingly regular heat waves and drought damage crops.
Russia will also eventually run out of arable land to expand into—in fact, two-thirds of the country’s best farmland is already too dry for growing—and the thawing permafrost regions will yield mostly sandy soil with low fertility.
Russia’s oil, gas, and natural resource sectors are also expected to take a hit, though less directly, as the country’s government neglects to establish decarbonization targets and other environmental standards desired by international trading partners. For instance, the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, first introduced in July 2021 and due to become fully operative in 2026, will affect Russia’s gas, copper, and nickel producers. Despite failing to find effective loopholes in the border tax, the Russian government is so far more inclined to compensate companies for losses rather than comply with the mechanism through measures like a carbon tax or carbon trading scheme, writes Pinkham.
Russia’s oil and gas sectors are also coming up against other complicating factors, like sanctions following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, and the eventual depletion of oil reserves. Gustafson argues that the Russian oil industry will become increasingly dependent on government support, and its dwindling oil supply “will lose value in a global market that is shifting to renewable energy,” Pinkham says.
“In Gustafson’s account, most of the factors that will determine the future of Russia’s oil exports lie outside its control,” writes Pinkham. “But Russia’s choices have had some effect. Its invasion of Ukraine has vastly accelerated the timeline for this squeeze.”
The impacts of climate change disrupting so many facets of the Russian economy will also rob its government of its ability to provide citizens with welfare policies and cheap gas that could placate the population. According to Gustafson, the resulting social destabilization will add to the fray.
“Economically, Russia has chosen to bet on the short game; the long game will be ruinous,” Pinkham says.
“Though Putin made substantial progress in modernizing Russia’s oil, gas, and agricultural sectors, and despite the striking success of Russia’s civilian nuclear power program, the country’s economic gains during the Putin era have been based on extraction rather than innovation, with the state dominating most industries.”