Noticeably missing are words like “energy conservation” or “alternative energy” or “carbon dioxide emissions” or even “permafrost,” which some in the west believe will, as ABC News reported, leave an area the size of Canada “largely useless for agriculture or building.”
This is a reference to Siberia and the Russian Far East, whicht together comprise about three-quarters of the Russian landmass, but remain largely wild and uninhabited.
Though now home to nearly 40 million people, most of them living near the region’s southern edge, Siberia has a population density less than eight people per square mile or about that of Montana.
And the Russian Far East is even less densely populated. Covering an area about four-times the size of Alaska, it is home to but 8.1 million people.
As in Alaska, most of these people are concentrated in the region’s major cities. The website Statista reports almost 73 percent of the region’s people inhabit urban areas.
Russia has long yearned to develop these areas, and though Russian President Vladimir Putin says the country is now willing to cooperate with a global plan to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases produced by human use of hydrocarbons for fuel, one cannot help but wonder about the true intentions of the nation just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.
The longest-lived ‘Last Frontier’
As Rosemary Griffin observed at the consultancy S&P Global Platts in 2020, “the Russian energy ministry estimates that Arctic oil production will account for 26 percent of overall output by 2035, up from 11.8 percent in 2007.
“Many in Moscow even point to warming temperatures and retreating sea ice as a boost to plans to launch new oil and gas field development and increase shipments via the Northern Sea Route, which links Asia to Europe via Arctic seas.”
Despite Putin’s supposed change of tune on climate change since that was written, the agriculture decree has to leave one wondering what is real and what is done merely for show.
The Agriculture Decree duly notes the problems a changing climate could cause for existing development, of which there is comparatively little in northern Russia, but adds that there is potential for “improving the structure and expanding the zone of crop production, as well as increasing the efficiency of animal husbandry.”
It also notes fishing opportunities are expected to increase “since the main fishing regions of Russia are concentrated in temperate and high latitudes.”
There follows a 16-point list of topics that needed to be studied with an eye to Russian adaptation, most of which are aimed at maintaining and increasing Russian agricultural production, which would appear to be the country’s grand strategy.
“Climate change is often considered universally harmful. However, recent studies indicate that climate change is increasing Russia’s wheat production, while reducing its competitors’ relative share of the global market,” researchers attached to The Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS) think tank at the College of William & Mary noted two years ago.
“At the same time, the demand for wheat in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa is expected to rise significantly in response to demographic changes. The Middle
East and North Africa, in particular, are already unable to meet their demand for wheat due to a lack of arable land,” Collin Nelson and Jenna Galberg wrote there. “These regions will be increasingly reliant on the world’s future breadbasket: Russia. The United States should expect Moscow to exploit this agricultural leverage to influence vulnerable countries.”
And then there is the Northern Sea Route, a long-time dream of Putin’s in which the Russians are heavily invested. Its future is tied to global warming in that an ice-free Arctic Ocean, or at least one low in ice, makes it possible to ship oil, gas and other high-value, natural resources from Arctic Russia through the Bering Strait to Asia.
While Russia’s climate agenda – whatever it might be – has unknown global implications, the Northern Sea Route has direct and potentially significant implications for Alaska, which is wholly unprepared to deal with an oil spill of any significance in the Bering Sea, and the risks of spills go up in proportion to vessel traffic.
Out of sight growth
While unnoticed by almost anyone – the coasts of the Bering Sea are among the least inhabited coasts in the world – the Nothern Sea Route last year set a record for shipping traffic.
“The figure for the full year is expected to exceed 34 million tonnes – an increase of 350 percent over the past five years,” The Maritime Executive reported near year’s end. “This is one of the many signs of economic growth in Russia’s Arctic, particularly in the oil and gas industry. Liquefied natural gas and oil tankers make up the majority of total traffic on the route.”
Thirty-four million tons of freight is a pittance in world where 11 billion tons move by ship every year, but the size of the steady growth in the route cannot be ignored.
“Russia’s ambitious goal is to achieve total yearly traffic of 80 million tonnes by 2024 and 110 million tonnes by 2030,” the Executive noted. “A warming Arctic is opening up new economic opportunities for the region as the extent of average ice cover retreats and the average ice thickness declines.”
More wheat in Russian farming regions, more oil and gas from the Arctic, improved Arctic shipping, a more human-hospitable Siberia and Far East where Russia has always eyed its future hopes for population growth….
From a Russian perspective, it might be tempting “what’s not to like about global warming?”
There are reasons Putin might want to privately embrace global warming rather than oppose it while publicly claiming the opposite.
Thus the Agriculture Decree’s lone mention of carbon calls for a “scientific conference on the topic, ‘Analysis of studies of sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the agro-industrial complex and fisheries,’ as well as the possibility of developing and testing technologies for controlling the carbon footprint to take appropriate measures to reduce their negative impact on agriculture and fisheries.”
It would be nice to believe that interest in new technology is all about reducing carbon emissions, but it’s hard to overlook the reality that economically viable carbon-capture technologies could prove highly marketable, and Putin is a man who clearly understands that national power on the global scale in the modern world is as much about economics as military might.
The latest strategic analysis from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) generally downplays Russia’s ability to project power via the global economy – noting a shrinking labor force, the limitations on technology-fostering free markets, government corruption and the country’s failure to wholly embrace the issue of climate change on which Europe is highly focused.
Brothers in arms
But report also warns “China may contribute strategic investments and technological support to help Russia fight the negative effects of climate change in the short-term,” while “China’s financial backing can capitalize on the potential new commerce and resource exploration.”
In some ways, Russia and the oppressive regime in Bejing seem a match almost made in heaven. And China, like Russia, talks about embracing climate-change mitigation while doing the opposite.
Already the world’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, China last year announced plans to build 43 new coal-fired powerplants at a time when much of the rest of the world is running away from carbon-heavy coal as if it were the plague.
Still, it is clear China needs to eventually get away from coal for the same reason most of the areas surrounding major U.S. metropolitan areas got away from coal: direct and obvious air pollution versus the invisible problem of carbon dioxide.
“The annual average concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) across China was 57 micrograms per meter cubed in 2017, nearly six times what the World Health Organisation deems to be acceptable limits. Poor outdoor air quality results in over 1 million deaths across China each year,” the World Economic Forum reported last year.
Russia and China have since announced plans for two huge natural gas pipelines to connect their countries.
“Gazprom, which has a monopoly on Russian gas exports by pipeline, agreed to supply Chinese state energy major CNPC with 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year,” US News & World Report stated at the start of the month.
“Russia already sends gas to China via its Power of Siberia pipeline, which began pumping supplies in 2019, and by shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG). It exported 16.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to China in 2021.”
Alaska once hoped to sell China a large amount North Slope gas shipped south to Cook Inlet in a long dreamed of natural gas pipeline.
“In a gala ceremony Nov. 9 (2017), (Gov. Bill) Walker signed a ‘joint development agreement’ for the trans-Alaska gas pipeline project known as AKLNG. The agreement was signed with China’s state-owned bank, its state-owned petroleum company, and the Chinese equivalent of the Alaska Permanent Fund, in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump,” the Juneau Empire reported five years ago.
“‘It really will open up Alaska, perhaps like we’ve never seen before,”Walker said of the state’s new ties to China, and suggested that the state could also benefit from Chinese tourism and Chinese demand for minerals.”
Some at the time wondered if Walker wasn’t just getting played by the Chinese to help drive down the price of the gas offered by the Russians then also in talks with Bejing. The growing alliance between the two authoritarian powers is causing increasing concern in the West.
“The biggest question is whether China can truly serve as an economic substitute for the West,” Eugene Chausovsky observed in Foreign Policy at the start of the month. “As such, it is crucial to look at the structural nature of Russia’s economic relationships with both the West and with China, both in terms of trade flows and the infrastructure that underpins them.”
Chausovsky’s analysis was largely focused on the economic constraints that might prevent a threatened Russian invasion of the Ukraine. And he was of the opinion that economic factors would discourage Russia from doing much more than saber-rattling along that border.
“Russia’s trade with the European Union (EU( totaled nearly $220 billion in 2021, roughly 1.5 times the size of Russian-Chinese trade,” he wrote. “Russia serves as a major energy exporter to the EU, accounting for 26 percent of the European bloc’s oil imports and 40 percent of its natural gas imports. Although many have pointed to the EU’s energy dependence as a major source of leverage and a geopolitical tool for the Kremlin, the reality is that this dependence goes both ways, with energy revenues accounting for nearly 40 percent of Russia’s budget revenues.”
At the same time, however, he warned that “the West has to consider the extent of its economic and political isolation from Russia, which could drive Moscow into an even closer relationship with China. This could violate a key geopolitical imperative for the United States, which is to prevent the emergence of a hegemon (or alliance of hegemons) in Eurasia that could challenge the United States’ global position.
“Yet even in the best-case scenario – where war in Ukraine is averted and some kind of diplomatic understanding is reached – the prolonged standoff between Moscow and the West as well as its associated risks could transform the scale and depth of Russia’s ties with China in the long term. Putin’s visit to Beijing and the subsequent conclusion of the Olympics could well prove to be a symbolic turning point, not of an imminent war but of a deeper geopolitical shift.”
It isn’t just with carbon-dioxide emissions that it must be observed that what happens in Russia – Alaska’s neighbor immediately to the west – doesn’t stay in Russia, and the same holds true for China.
Alaskans could only wish these two countries were as proverbially friendly as its neighbors to the east – the Canadians. Or at least the Canadians before the country blew up over whether long-haul truckers should be required to wear facing coverings and get vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.