Multipolar World

The environmental (ir)responsibility of Russia and the Arctic Route

Jorge Costa Oliveira

According to an article published in the December 14, 2021 issue of Science magazine, the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. Several scientific studies, including one published on August 11, 2022, in the Communications Earth & Environment Journal, and others mentioned in an article in the August 12, 2022, issue of Scientific American, confirm the same conclusion.

Apparently, this accelerated warming of the Arctic, most notably above the Arctic Circle, is essentially due to physical processes, among which it is important to highlight the thawing of large areas previously covered by ice, including the permafrost that covers about 65% of Russian territory.

For a long time, President Putin was one of the main skeptics of the relevance of human beings in the world’s climate changes and even suggested that global warming could create new economic opportunities for Russia.

However, in 2019, the Russian leadership took up the fight against global warming, albeit in very limited terms. Yet, the proposed legislation was subverted by economic lobbies, enshrining weak provisions regarding the reporting of emissions and sanctions for polluters, in addition to the elimination of a national emission permit trading scheme; and with the cunning move of using 1990 as a reference – when the then USSR emitted almost 2.4 billion tons of carbon – so Russia can increase its emissions over the next decade and still meet its target of a 30% reduction…

If environmental disasters resulting from climate changes, especially due to the disappearance of permafrost – significant damage to human settlements and major energy and transport infrastructures, release of long-stored greenhouse gases (such as methane), forest fires, local pollution – fuel popular protests and increase tensions between regional governors and Moscow, perhaps this position will be reviewed. But the economic greed for access to land freed by the thawing permafrost – whether for cereal production or for the exploitation of minerals for the production of precious and critical metals – will probably continue to drive Russian environmental policy.

Moreover, a significant global reduction in the demand for oil and natural gas (which would act as a catalyst for environmental policy changes in Russia) is unlikely in the next 2 – 3 decades.

Lastly, the navigability of the Arctic Ocean resulting from its accelerated melting will allow large cargo ships to use this Arctic Route (NSR), which can reduce travel time between the Far East and Europe by 40% compared to the Suez Canal route. 

A container ship from China can take about 34-40 days to reach Rotterdam, the main European port. In contrast, the Arctic Route may take around 23 days to the same destination. Russian authorities believe the route could be viable by 2035. 

In truth, the Arctic Route will be feasible all the sooner the faster the Arctic Ocean thaws. And the navigability of the Arctic will make Russia indispensable in international maritime trade for decades if not centuries.

Categories Multipolar World Opinion