© Veronika Essen

A Russian activist weighs the likelihood of a green recovery

6 October 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A Green and Just Recovery. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The pandemic has changed life for everyone, but arguably none more so than the world’s young people. For many, their lives have been put on hold. Their educations have been interrupted, and milestones such as graduations have been cancelled. But Russian youth climate activist Sonya Epifantseva sees a potential upside: she hopes the pandemic might help people across the Arctic— and around the globe—understand the need to choose a greener path forward.

I spent the early months of the pandemic in my hometown, Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. For as long as I can remember, this large industrial city has been plagued by factory exhaust. But when industrial activities were suspended during the pandemic, the air became cleaner—at least, until summer forest fires filled the city with smoke again. Everyone assumed that last summer’s tragedy—when 21 million hectares burned in Siberia—would not repeat itself, but unfortunately, this year has been even worse. Wishful thinking won’t stop climate change—and the government isn’t even putting out the fires in some places because they are considered “controlled fire zones.”

During the self-isolation that marked the early days of the pandemic, many people in Russia began to analyse world events more critically. Many of my acquaintances began to take a more conscious approach to their lives, giving thought to how we treat our planet and where humanity may end up if we don’t make changes. Unfortunately, despite this shift in attitudes, there is still very little action to address the climate crisis. Yet if we don’t act, there is no doubt that the crisis will lead to unsuitable living conditions in many parts of the world, including mine.

This summer, it also became obvious that Russian companies are treating the Arctic with dangerous disrespect. The diesel fuel spill in Norilsk, a city on Siberia’s Taymyr peninsula, made this abundantly clear. This industrial disaster happened when an abrupt spring thaw fatally damaged massive oil storage equipment at the Nornickel factory, which produces palladium, nickel, platinum and copper. The aged and badly maintained container fell apart, flooding local rivers with more than 15,000 tonnes of diesel oil.

Investigations of the disaster’s impact have since revealed that entire river ecosystems in the area are on the verge of collapse and that hazardous waste has been draining into rivers in this beautiful, rich region for years. These are crimes for which we must hold companies accountable.

Expanding industrial activity in the Arctic is accelerating the thawing of permafrost and the climate crisis, jeopardizing not only Russia’s future but that of the entire world.

As the economic recovery unfolds, the Russian government has a chance to choose a greener path and focus more on renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely, as many regional economies in Russia depend on fuel exports—so if other countries switch to renewable energy sources, these regional economies will collapse. Russia is a huge country, with great untapped potential for wind and solar power installations. It needs to start thinking about the future, not only about its income.

SONYA EPIFANTSEVA, 19, studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. She has been a climate activist for two years.