By Tanya Titova and Frank Jordans
The Associated Press
MOSCOW » A Russian island north of Japan has become a testing ground for Moscow’s efforts to reconcile its prized fossil fuel industry with the need to do something about climate change.
More than two-thirds of Sakhalin Island is forested. With the Kremlin’s blessing, authorities there have set an ambitious goal of making the island — Russia’s largest — carbon neutral by 2025.
Tree growth will absorb as much planet-warming carbon dioxide as the island’s half-million residents and its businesses produce, an idea the Russian government 4,000 miles to the west in Moscow hopes to apply to the whole country, which has more forested area than any other nation.
“The economic structure of Sakhalin and the large share of forestland in the territory and carbon balance distribution reflect the general situation in Russia,” said Dinara Gershinkova, an adviser to Sakhalin’s governor on climate and sustainable development. “So the results of the experiment in Sakhalin will be representative and applicable to the whole Russian Federation.”
The plan reflects a marked change of mood in Russia on climate change.
President Vladimir Putin once joked about global warming in 2003, saying that Russians would be able to “spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would increase.” But last year, he acknowledged that climate change “requires real actions and way more attention,” and he has sought to position one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters as a leader in the fight against global warming.
Russia’s vast forests are key to this idea.
“By aiming to build a carbonneutral economy by no later than 2060, Russia is relying, among other things, on the unique resource of forest ecosystems available to us, and their significant capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen,” Putin said in a video address last week to the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. “After all, our country accounts for around 20% of the world’s forestland.”
Scientists say natural forms of removing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere will indeed play a key role in tackling global warming.
Many countries at the climate talks rely on some form of absorbing emissions to achieve their targets of being “net zero” by 2050 — that is, emitting only as much greenhouse gas as can be recaptured by natural or artificial means.
But experts say the math behind such calculations is notoriously fuzzy and prone to manipulation by governments, who have a vested interest in making their emissions look good.
“Russia makes an enormous contribution in the absorption of global emissions — both its own and others’ — by means of absorptive capacity of our ecosystems, firstly of forests, which is estimated at 2.5 billion tons of CO2 equivalent a year,” said Viktoria Abramchenko, deputy prime minister for environmental issues, speaking at a conference in St. Petersburg. The figure came as a surprise to scientists contacted by The Associated Press. It constitutes a fivefold increase on the 535 million metric tons of CO2 absorption that Russia reported to the U.N. climate office for 2019.
Natalia Lukina, the director of the Center of Ecology and Productivity of Forests, a government- funded research institute, said the estimates are actually assumptions because “there is no real accurate data.”
Wildfires that burn millions of hectares of forest are another, increasingly pressing problem. Forests that have stored carbon for decades suddenly become big emitters when they burn, undoing an absorption effect, said Sergey Bartalev, head of the boreal ecosystems monitoring lab at the Space Research Institute.