Might Russia Welcome Global Warming?

Aug 11, 2011

By Serge Korepin
sibIf you were participating in a competition for power and influence where you had the option of having your opponents become much weaker, while you became only slightly weaker, would you take that option? This may be the question Kremlin leaders are asking themselves in regard to cooperation on curbing global warming. It is, of course, a moral issue because many people will suffer from the effects of global warming. Scientific analyses have stated that there will be a rise of sea levels, the disruption of ecosystems, erratic weather, and the spread of diseases are the direct result of human activity. While moral considerations will play a role in the Kremlin’s evaluation of the net effects of global warming, there are additional and significant realist implications for the Kremlin to consider. The U.S. National Intelligence Council noted in 2008 that Russia “has the potential to gain the most from increasingly temperate weather.” If this is so, it is possible that Russia—the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States—will not cooperate on curbing global warming. Andrew Light, the Director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University says: “no climate deal will likely succeed without real participation from Russia.” Might Russia see a relative benefit to global warming?

To help answer this question, let’s consider how cold it is in Russia. Hill and Gaddy write, “by nearly any conventional measure of temperature, Russia claims the distinction of being the coldest country in the world.”1 Most of Siberia’s climate—the majority of Russia’s territorial holdings—is “continental subarctic,” with an annual average of -5 °C. Of course, Siberia can get much colder—the lowest recorded temperature in a settlement was −71.2 °C (−96.2 °F) in the Siberian town of Oymyakon. Another aspect of Russia’s coldness is illustrated by the early settlers of Yakutsk (with a current population of 270,000), who wrote that they could not dig a well nor could they expect to grow wheat. This is because the cold in Siberia is accompanied by permafrost—soil that remains frozen all year (with the exception of a thin top-layer that thaws seasonally). Permafrost covers over two-thirds of all of Russia’s territory—roughly 6.22 million square miles (see map).  
Russia pays a price for this cold. Hill and Gaddy demonstrate that there is an accelerating drop in the efficiency of human and machine work as the temperature drops from freezing to -40 °C;2 in fact, sometimes it is too cold to work at all. In addition, as the temperature drops, wind has an increasingly negative effect: at -15 °C, a 20 mph wind quadruples the amount of time to perform a task.3 Writing on this topic in 1983, Victor Mote concluded “In an average year, total losses to the cold comprise 33% of all possible working time in the Soviet north.”4  Furthermore, cold causes damage to industries, human health, buildings, equipment, and infrastructure; at -15 °C high carbon steel breaks, at -25-30 °C unalloyed steel breaks, frost-resistant rubber is required. When temperatures hit -35-40 °C tin-alloy steel components shatter, all compressors stop work, standard steels and structures rupture en mass.5 These climate effects result in high maintenance and replacement costs.
In addition to these efficiency costs, it is also expensive to live in the cold climates; for example, there are high heating and snow and ice removal costs. These costs affect Russia more so than other areas because communist planners have populated cities and built industries that are too big to be economically viable in the relative coldness of their locations.6 Thus, there is economic pressure because of the cold for many Russian cities to shrink (which has been difficult given the existing infrastructure of these cities). Russia’s increasing temperatures (which are probably the result of global warming) could relieve some the economic pressures that result from the cold climate. Warming will directly reduce the effects of cold on work efficiency in Russia and reduce adaptation costs. In fact, this is already happening. Rosgidromet (Russia’s Hydro-meteorology agency) stated in 2008 that average annual temperature in Russia has risen by 1.3 °C over the past 30 years and that winter temperatures in Siberia have increased 2-3 °C over the past 120-150 years.7 This is reflected in the agency’s estimate that there will be five fewer days that require heat in 2015 than in 2000. The agency also estimates that Russians could reduce heating costs by as much as 10 % by 2050.  
Russia will further gain from the warming of the ground and water in and around its territory. The UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in 2001 that if average air temperature increased by 2-3.5 degrees, a quarter of the earth’s permafrost would melt.8 This is already happening; Greenpeace’s 2009 report on Russia states that over the past 35 years the southern boundary of permafrost has moved north by 18-25 miles in European Russia and 50 miles near the Urals. Rosgidromet predicts that by 2050 the permafrost boundary would shift north by another 95-125 miles. The retreat of permafrost will make extraction of raw materials easier; Victor Mote wrote; “In Siberia standard mining and excavation machinery may be used for only three to four months a year in northern Siberian tin and gold operations.9 In addition, most of Russia’s gas and oil comes from Arctic regions, as well as “considerable quantities of the world’s nickel, cobalt, copper and diamonds.” Observers are tracking additional warming trends like the spread of trees and shrubs northward, which implies an increase of habitable land. Warming will also allow agriculture to spread north, extend the growing seasons, and perhaps increase overall agricultural yields—Russia has recently marked yield records.
In addition, Russia’s chief forecaster, Alexander Frolov, said that the North Pole may be completely ice-free in the summer within a few decades. The retreat of Arctic ice will reduce the cost of extracting natural resources from Arctic waters, which contain large reserves of oil, gas, gold, diamonds, nickel and tungsten. One concern for such extraction has been icebergs. A reduction in Arctic ice is also opening up a trade route which would be an alternative to the Suez Canal; the distance between Rotterdam and Yokohama is about one-third shorter via the Northern Sea Route—along Russia’s north coast and then south through the Bering Strait. Rosgidromet has stated that Russia is close to opening “almost the entire Northern Sea Route to icebreaker-free shipping [from August to September].” In fact, representatives of the eight Arctic powers are already discussing the development of the route. The Northern Sea Route’s freight consisted of about 110,000 tons this year. By 2020, some predict freight will increase to 64 million tons. Additionally, Siberia contains eleven of the world’s fifty longest rivers—all of them flowing into the Arctic Ocean, except the Amur that flows to the Sea of Okhotsk (to a port that is unusable for five months out of the year because of the ice). As the Arctic sea-ice retreats, the settlements along these rivers will no longer be on waterways that essentially come to a dead end. It will become possible to transport cargo from these rivers to ports around the globe, which could lead to a decrease in transport costs and an increase in trade volume from the interior of Siberia. David Lempert and Hue Nhu Nguyen write in The Ecologist that “the biggest winner from global warming is going to be Russia.”
While Russia can benefit from global warming, there are also many negative effects for it to consider. As permafrost thaws, water and sewer systems may be overwhelmed and polluted. Permafrost also tends to melt unevenly (due to differences in its makeup), the result of which is that infrastructure built on it can be destroyed. Given that 93% of gas production and 75% of oil production in Russia take place in permafrost areas, this aspect of warming raises much concern.10 Russia has 350,000 kilometers of oil and gas pipeline in Siberia; “thousands” of accidents now occur each year due to the thaw of the permafrost. As the climate warms, more complications are possible. Especially problematic would be structural damage in the industrial area around the southern tip of Lake Baikal (including Angarsk and Irkutsk) as well as the radioactive waste storage facilities on Novaya Zemlya. In “Russia After the Global Economic Crisis,” Charap and Safonov point out that dealing with extreme weather events will cost Russia $2 billion per year. They also note that in recent years, Russia has experienced increased floods, windstorms, heat waves, forest fires and melting of permafrost.11 Continued warming may exacerbate this. A further concern is whether ecological systems can shift north fast enough and whether those in the far north will survive.  There will also likely be spill-over effects on Russia from global warming related problems for Russia’s neighbors, such as water shortages. 
Overall, I do not mean to imply that this global warming is on balance good for Russia because there are too many unknowns, and negative effects for the planet as a whole, to make such a conclusion. However, it does seem that no other country will benefit as much as Russia from global warming. So far, Russian leaders seem unsure about how to handle the issue. Russia joined the Kyoto Protocol (which expires in 2012), but did not have to do much because shortly thereafter much of its Soviet-era industry collapsed.  President Medvedev has stated that fires sweeping across Russia are connected to global warming, while the Russian ambassador to the United States has said that the costs of global warming will outweigh the benefits. However, Vladimir Putin has noted that global warming would help Russia save on heating and clothing. Rinat Gizatullin, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Ministry, told the BBC: "We are not panicking. Global warming is not as catastrophic for us as it might be for some other countries. If anything, we'll be even better off." If the Kremlin does conclude that global warming is a relative economic and geopolitical benefit for Russia, given the level of greenhouse gasses it releases, the world will need a new impetus, and new incentives to curb global warming. Working with Russia to make it more energy efficient may be a good start and in everyone’s interest. A thorough study of the net economic effects on Russia seems important as well. Meanwhile, it may not be a bad idea to invest in some Siberian real estate. 


Serge Korepin is a research intern at the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS. He is also working toward a master’s degree in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. SergeKorepin@gmail.com.

1 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. (2003). The Siberian Curse. p 27. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
2 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. p 42.
3 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. p 43.
4 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. p 51.
5 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. p 49.
6 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. p25, 55-56, 93-94.
7 Charap, S., & Safonov, G. (2010). Climate Change and the Role of Energy Efficiency. In Russia After the Global Economic Crisis (pp. 125-150). p 127. Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute.
8 Gosnell, M. (2007). Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. p 241. Chicago: University of Chicago.
9 Hill, F., & Gaddy, C. p 50.
10 Charap, S., & Safonov, G. p 129.
11 Charap, S., & Safonov, G. p 127.