On a Pacific Island, Russia Tests Its Battle Plan for Climate Change


President Vladimir V. Putin long dismissed the threat posed by global warming. But fires, disasters and foreign pressure have prompted him to change course.

By Anton Troianovski

Photographs by Sergey Ponomarev

  • Oct. 19, 2021
President Vladimir Putin said Russia would stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2060 at a Russia Energy Week conference in Moscow on Wednesday.

President Vladimir Putin said Russia would stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2060 at a Russia Energy Week conference in Moscow on Wednesday.Credit…Sputnik, via Reuters

SAKHALIN ISLAND, Russia — Sixteen wind turbines are slated to go up amid the winding coast and wooded hills of this Russian island in the Pacific, creating a wind park bigger than any that currently exists in the vast reaches of the country’s Far East.

The clean energy generated by the new wind park will go toward mining more coal.

Russia is scrambling to retain the wealth and power that come from selling fossil fuels to the world, even as the Kremlin increasingly acknowledges climate change to be a human-made crisis that the country needs to do more to address.

Last week, President Vladimir V. Putin said Russia would stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2060. It was a remarkable reversal since Mr. Putin has long dismissed climate science and many in his country see international efforts to combat global warming as part of a Western plot to weaken Russia. His announcement comes two weeks before world leaders are set to converge in Glasgow for a pivotal U.N. climate summit.

But it’s unclear if Russia is sincere in its new pledge. Russian energy experts and government officials acknowledge the moves are largely driven by economics, with the European Union’s plans for tariffs on heavily polluting countries threatening exports from Russia, the fourth biggest among nations in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Some elements of Russia’s plans have prompted skepticism, including a heavy reliance on forests as a tool to absorb carbon dioxide.

And the country continues to invest in producing more oil, gas and coal, doubling down on an industry that has allowed the Kremlin to reap profits during a global energy crunch and wield leverage over Europe, its main customer.

Russia’s climate contradictions are on display on the 600-mile-long island of Sakhalin, just north of Japan. The relatively wealthy region of 500,000 people is rich in hydrocarbons, the backbone of its economy. But the regional government last year pledged to make Sakhalin Russia’s first “carbon neutral” region by 2025 — one that absorbs as much carbon out of the air as it emits.

Much of Sakhalin is covered by majestic forests of spruce and fir. They tell the story of Russia’s role in fighting climate change, and of its vulnerability to it.

In Sakhalin, according to the government, forests already absorb 11 million of the 12 million metric tons of the carbon emitted by human activity — making the goal of carbon neutrality achievable with relatively minor reductions in emissions.

Nationwide, Russia plans to more than double the amount of carbon counted as being absorbed by its vast forests and other ecosystems by 2050, according to a draft government strategy seen by The New York Times. Some of that increase would come from fighting forest fires and by changing forestry practices. But it would also result from changing how that absorption is calculated using “modern mathematical models based on neural networks and artificial intelligence,” provoking skepticism from environmentalists.

Then, last year, a devastating oil spill in Siberia caused by thawing permafrost toppling a diesel tank underscored the particular danger that global warming poses to infrastructure in Russia. Two-thirds of the nation’s territory is covered by frozen ground. This year, for the third summer in a row, Siberians faced the worst wildfires they could remember, stoking their anger at the government.

“Why has nature gone mad?” a television viewer asked Mr. Putin on his annual call-in show in June.

“Many believe, with good reason, that this is connected primarily to human activity, to emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere,” Mr. Putin responded.

Two weeks later, the European Union announced plans for a carbon border tax on imports from countries that are not taking steps it deems sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Imports from Russia, analysts predicted, would be hardest hit.

Dinara Gershinkova, a former Kremlin official who oversees Sakhalin’s climate efforts, said that international pressure has been “a real lever” forcing Russia to reduce emissions. The past two years, she said, have been “totally crazy” as companies with foreign investors sought advice on how to meet international environmental standards.

Spruces in a bog outside Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
Spruces in a bog outside Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Under its existing plans, Russia will meet the pledge it made as part of the Paris climate agreement to reduce its emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, even though its emissions could still rise in the coming years.

The company’s chairman, Oleg Misevra, has said that the threat of climate change is “forcing humanity to unite and take radical measures.” In East Mining’s case, that means putting up a 67-megawatt wind farm to power its open-pit coal mining operations; it erected wind-monitoring equipment to find a suitable spot last month. Mr. Yablokov, of Greenpeace, called the plans “totally surreal.”

“Wind turbines are supposed to replace fossil fuels, rather than support them,” Mr. Yablokov said.

East Mining declined interview requests. In Uglegorsk, the mining town near the company’s main operations, there is little faith in its environmental pledges. The debris from its coal quarry collapsed in July in a massive landslide that, activists say, polluted the area’s water supply. After the municipal newspaper reported on the disaster, the mayor tried to fire the editor in chief.

“They’ve learned to say the right words,” said Vladimir Avdeyev, a 61-year-old Uglegorsk activist, as he surveyed the gray expanse of landslide debris stretching across a valley outside town. “We see deeds of an opposite character.”